In 1997 a terrifying All Blacks were playing a different game

Ireland and the All Blacks through the years: Heavy defeat in 1997 heralded dark period

Christian Cullen: brought a new dimension to the the traditional role of fullback in an outstanding All Blacks side. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Christian Cullen: brought a new dimension to the the traditional role of fullback in an outstanding All Blacks side. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

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Ireland 15 New Zealand 63 - Lansdowne Road, November 15th 1997

At the start of the Five Nations season, resident Ireland fullback Jim Staples received a phone call from Dick Best, his club coach at Harlequins. Best had scanned the Irish squad in the morning ‘papers’ and noticed that his man wasn’t included.

“Just checking, Jim,” he joked. “You’re not dead, are you?”

He wasn’t but he was an endangered species: an amateur sportsman operating in the brave new world of professionalism.

Staples had been a constant presence in Irish teams since the beginning of the decade. He was about to turn 30 when rugby union turned professional in 1995. He loved rugby but also enjoyed his career as in London’s roaring financial sector.

His schedule that winter was hectic: 5.15 am starts, into the office to monitor international markets by 6.45; on a train by 5pm for twice weekly training at Harlequins. Some of his team-mates were living as actual professionals: doing nothing but playing rugby. It was still a bit of a head-wrecking thought: legitimate, yes, but to the generation raised in amateurism, it felt almost delinquent.

“The game has gone professional,” Staples told Gerry Thornley in an interview that stands in bold contrast to the guarded platitudes traded by the New Zealand and Ireland camps this week.

“There is an opportunity for some players where you don’t have to work. A lot of the players have decided to use that. I’m, in a sense, cheating in that I’m not going to do that. I’m sure in a year’s time, maybe two, who knows, the likes of myself won’t be around. That isn’t sad. That’s natural. That’s a natural evolution of the game. I’ve got a choice. I could be a pro’ if I wanted to be.”

Staples remarks got to the heart of the delicate and fast-changing face of international rugby that year. Two years in, nobody could be fully sure if it wasn’t just a lark. Everyone was doing their best.

Ireland, after a calamitous couple of years, had brought in Brian Ashton, the messianic Bath coach, to try and right the ship. A brilliant win over Wales in Cardiff set Ireland up for a home game against England in Dublin. Confidence was high. Ireland were tipped to win on these pages and elsewhere.

Staples had returned by then, as fullback and as captain of a side that felt the icy breath of professionalism that day. It finished 46-6 to England. Staples observation was prescient: his international career concluded with the Five Nations that March.

When the All-Blacks arrived in Dublin for their November appointment, Kevin Nowlan found himself elevated to first-choice full back after Conor O’Shea broke his arm while playing for London Irish the week before the game. All of the focus, though, was on New Zealand’s fullback.

Best fullback

The blistering pace and strength with which Christian Cullen commanded the position had taken the rugby world by storm. He was a radical departure from the traditional safe-pair-of-hands number 15, instead collecting any ball coming at him and just running at the opposite team with the carefree abandon of an NFL punt returner.

“When you play against him, you must put the ball out,” warned South Africa’s Andre Joubert that year.

“If you don’t he can be lethal. He can create space for himself and for his team-mates, I don’t think it’s a case of ‘is he the best fullback in the world?’ He is.”

Nobody was under any illusions about the task facing Ireland. It was a tour which illuminated just how quickly New Zealand were embracing professionalism. They beat Llanelli 81-3 and then Wales ‘A’ by 51-8. (Actual Wales wouldn’t do much better: that Test finished 42-7). The turned Emerging England into Retreating England (59-22 in Huddersfield).

Still, for the crowd in Lansdowne Road that afternoon, it was clear by full-time that a chasm had opened up. The first half hour couldn’t have gone better: the opening two tries were scored by Ireland’s Keith Wood. But from that disadvantage, New Zealand ran home 63 unanswered points in about 50 minutes. The All-Blacks may have shared the rugby field but they were playing a different game.

“I thought we competed pretty well for the first 30 minutes,” Ashton said gamely. We had an unfortunate spell ten minutes before half time and early in the second half with the first couple of possessions when we kicked the ball down Christian Cullen’s throat – not the wisest move.

“For the first 25 minutes of the second half one could see all of the attributes that this side has got – power, vision, footballers all over the field, the ability to retain the ball. They play with remarkable patience and control, just waiting for the defence to run out of numbers. They are powerful men, very dynamic.”

Bleak defeat

Jeff Wilson and Glenn Osborne grabbed two tries each; New Zealand scored seven in total.

You only had to scan the match programme to gauge the impossibility of Ireland’s situation at that time. Eight of the starting 15 – Rob Henderson (Wasps), Mark McCall, Keiron Dawson, Malcolm O’Kelly (London Irish), Nick Popplewell (Newcastle), Keith Wood (Harlequins, Paul Wallace and Paddy Johns (Saracens) – were playing their rugby in England. It would have made more sense for Ashton to hold sessions in London.

The situation highlighted the inadequacy of the tradition of getting together a few weeks before the match.

The New Zealand lesson hastened Ireland towards a painful and dark couple of seasons: just one win in the Five Nations over the next two years, the departure of Ashton and a bleak defeat to Argentina fast-tracking an exit before the quarter-finals of the 1999 World Cup.

Two decades on, Ireland prepare for a New Zealand game ranked second in the world and with a realistic chance of earning a first ever win over the visitors in Lansdowne. That scenario would have been unimaginable to in the stadium on an afternoon when the black shirts ran riot, leaving Irish rugby in a lost place.

IRELAND: K Nowlan; D Hickie, R Henderson, M McCall, J McWeeney; E Elwood, J M cGuinness; N Popplewell, K Wood, P Wallace; P Johns, M O’Kelly; E Halvey, E Miller K Dawson.

NEW ZEALAND: C Cullen; J Wilson, F Bunce, A Ieremia, G Osborne; A Mehrtens, J Marshall; C Dowd, N Hewitt, O Brown; I Jones, R Brooke; T Randell, Z Brooke; A Blowers.

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