Gerry Thornley: Finally we can bin that one lingering inferiority complex
Ireland’s history with All Blacks was one of hammerings, humiliation and heartbreak
The Ireland team and management celebrate in the dressing-room of Soldier Field. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
If there are any lingering regrets, the pity is it didn’t happen before, notably in Dublin three Novembers ago, but at a stroke Rory Best’s team removed the biggest monkey from the collective backs of Irish rugby. This was huge.
This means Ireland can actually believe in their ability to beat anyone, in addition to saying it. And this was also for all of those who had gone before.
Never have you seen an Ireland squad look so pleased on a pitch post-match, and understandably so.
This had been the fixture, more than any other, which had made Ireland seem that little bit small as a rugby nation; the fixture which had become a real inferiority complex.
Twenty-eight matches over a 111-year period is bad enough, but in truth – despite the advent of a more level playing field and the huge progress made by Irish rugby – the fixture had seemingly become more cursed in the professional era.
In the last two decades, there have been 17 meetings, all of them lost.
So no matter the Triple Crowns and then the Grand Slam and the back-to-back championships, or the landmark wins over Australia and South Africa in the Southern Hemisphere, meetings with the All Blacks were always guaranteed to put Ireland back in their box.
Sometimes there were almighty hammerings. Going back to that one in 1997, those were the days when Ireland, full of fire and fury, would throw the kitchen sink at a team like the All Blacks and then come the hour mark not have enough energy to do the dishes.
The hammerings were humiliating, none more so than in Hamilton. That it came only a week after a pivotal scrum decision by Nigel Owens denied Ireland a win in Christchurch only made it worse. Heaven knows how the players must have felt. But even as an Irish journalist you wanted to slink out by the tradesman’s entrance, not wanting to even make eye contact with a Kiwi counterpart much less bid adieu.
When you grew weary of All Blacks players making what they felt was dutifully respectful noises about Ireland’s passion or physicality, and of only ever seeming to know the name of Brian O’Driscoll, you also had to remind yourself that Ireland’s record hardly demanded they know any more.
And the more Ireland players vowed to win this fixture one day, the more All Blacks players vowed not to let it happen on their watch and thus suffer such an indignity.
Sometimes Ireland played some really good rugby and still got beaten out the gate, like the 38-18 defeat in November 2010 at the Aviva Stadium.
The hope that killed you
If not hammerings, or even the beatings, then it was the hope that killed you. Like in 2001, when David Humphreys pulled the strings and set up Kevin Maggs as Ireland swept into a 23-7 lead, only for the All Blacks to pull clear and win by the exact same scoreline, 40-29, as in Soldier Field, in what was John Mitchell’s first match in charge and some bloke by the name of Richie McCaw was man of the match on his debut.
Or that other one that got away in Christchurch in 2012, when Johnny Sexton was outstanding, and with the scores level entering the last five minutes and the All Blacks reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of Israel Dagg, the Irish pack drove the New Zealand scrum back and on hearing Nigel Owens blow his whistle stood up in expectation of having earned Sexton a match-winning penalty only for their expressions to turn to disgust when Owens adjudged Ireland to have wheeled the scrum. So instead New Zealand went down field and a bloke called Dan Carter kicked the winning drop goal.
In truth, the All Blacks Houdini-like escape with the last play in overtime at the Aviva three years ago meant Saturday’s defeat was less of an indignity than they may have imagined it might be, for as Steve Hansen readily acknowledged afterwards, Ireland should have won that day too.
On that emotional rollercoaster of a day, you dared to believe at 19-0. You dared to believe when Sexton had a penalty to put Ireland two scores clear seven minutes from time. You dared to believe again when the Irish were running down the clock with pick-and-jam rugby entering the last 30 seconds.
But then you stopped believing when Owens pinged Jack McGrath for going off his feet. Because you knew that the All Blacks would concoct another late match-winner. And you were right. Those darned All Blacks did just that. And it didn’t really matter a whole lot when Aaron Cruden was given a second shot at the match-winning touchline conversion, thus denying Ireland even a draw.
It thus remained a box unticked for O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, amongst many others.
The closer Ireland came, the more elusive that first win seemed to be, and as the All Blacks trimmed Ireland’s 30-8 lead to just 33-29, there was that awful sinking feeling again. But when the completion of the comeback didn’t come immediately, that thunderous, trademark man-and-ball tackle by Andrew Trimble on Liam Squire felt pivotal.
Robbie Henshaw’s try sealed the deal and, heck, the last four minutes could be played out with the comfort of a two-score lead. Not even the masters of escapology could get out of this one. After it was over, Kiwi journalists and the team’s long-standing press officer Joe Locke could not have been more generous or gracious in defeat.
But yeah, it’s happened.