For year upon year we heard Irish players talk of the motivation that went with the chance to make history, to be part of the first Irish team to beat the All Blacks. On the flip side of that coin, New Zealand players didn’t want to be part of unwanted history, and the ignominy of being the first team to lose to Ireland. “Not on our watch mate,” was the general thrust.
Hence it was as much a fear of failure as a real respect for opponents who had never beaten them in over a century of trying. But in Chicago's Soldier Field two Novembers ago, all that changed. Ryan Crotty and Dane Coles were both on the starting XV which suffered a piece of unwanted All Blacks' history.
They don’t take defeats too well, and asked if the memory of Soldier Field constituted a nick or a scar, Coles clearly leant toward the latter.
“I think we’re doing everything in our power for that not to happen again, because we were both involved in Chicago and it wasn’t a great feeling.”
Then he changed tone and added: “We can talk about history and stuff like that, but it’s all about this week. Both teams have had a lot of drama. Like 2013, when we pulled off that magic win. In 2016, they got us. But those things aren’t going to help you this week. It’s a new year, new players and I’m sure both teams will want to feel that feeling again.”
“We won’t be dipping into the past for extra motivation. There’ll be plenty of motivation just to concentrate on this week and hopefully get the job done.”
To the same question, Crotty took up that theme, all the while clearly reveling in the thought of playing at a sold-out Aviva Stadium.
“How can you not be excited if you’ve got this opportunity to play? It’s two of the best teams in the world going at it, over here, awesome atmosphere, awesome stadium, great fans. You don’t need to go anywhere else. You don’t need to dip into the past to find a desire to play and play well. It’s a special opportunity for whoever gets to run out there on Saturday.“
Coles also referenced that "number two v number one" world ranking, and further enhancing the respect the All Blacks now have for Ireland is the reputation generated by Joe Schmidt and his assistants.
This observation from Coles seemed quite telling.
“They’ve definitely got a more all-round game. They’re not the classic team who just scrums and drives, their skill-sets are huge and we’ve felt defeat and stuff like that. They can actually play, the forwards have great skill-sets. We’ve massive respect for them. They’ve probably added their own little taste to international footy over the last six/seven years, so it’s good.”
Ultimately though, nothing earns respect quite like a win, and when asked whether the perception of Irish rugby changed in New Zealand, Ctotty admitted: “That’s a good question. Colesy alluded to the fact about how much they have improved over the course of the last six to 10 years. They are just an outstanding rugby side. I don’t think they’ve never not been seen in that light. They have always been a top tier nation.”
“There is a lot of respect, definitely. I think they are coached really, really well. I don’t know if the perception has changed but I think the respect is definitely there that they are one of best teams in world rugby.”
Ireland have also pushed New Zealand all the way in two other meetings under Schmidt either side of that Chicago result. Indeed, it was interesting that the All Blacks management should put up Coles and Crotty for media duty yesterday.
In the first of those clashes, with Ireland leading 22-17, the All Blacks put together that breathtaking, 11-phase, 60 metre drive with the last play of the game, and with the clock on 81 minutes and 20 seconds, it was Coles who dummied, straightened inside Ian Madigan and took Sean O'Brien's tackle to offload for fellow replacement Crotty to score. Aaron Cruden's twice taken conversion completed a 24-22 win after Ireland had stormed into a 19-0 lead by the end of the first quarter.
“I remember Dane did all the work and I didn’t have to do anything,” said Crotty modestly. “Since then I have had to apologise to every Irishman I’ve met. It was a special year – 2013. We went undefeated that year so it was really special for the boys, but I’m excited to be back. It’s a great city to be in. This is an immensely tough opponent this weekend. so it is good to be back.”
Coles recalled: “Yea, very similar (to Ryan). It was pretty special and just excited to be back. We’ve had a bit of history over the past; we’ve had some really intense, close games, so we’re just pretty keen to enjoy the week. Number one versus number two, so it’s going to be awesome.”
Honestly, this is different lingo from the 90s and the Noughties. Proper respect now.