Isa Nacewa: Black magic no longer casts a spell on Ireland
I’ve been telling everyone in New Zealand that we now have a real, sustainable rivalry
Ireland’s players form a guard of honour for New Zealand at the end of the match. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Warning to offshore Kiwis: return home predicting a New Zealand loss at your peril. Definitely don’t do it on national television.
Before kick-off last Sunday morning I was surrounded by All Blacks. In the Sky TV studio, Mils Muliaina, Steven Bates and Wyatt Crockett each admitted it was the first time they felt nervous as pundits before a test match.
Yet when we went around the circle for predictions I doubled down - “Ireland 21-10 New Zealand” - while the three boys expressed grave concerns before the usual: we’ll run away with it in the last 20 minutes.
Because that’s what the All Blacks always do, especially against Ireland.
The Nacewa clan is slightly conflicted. Well, I am. My daughters - Mia, Elle, Lucy and Laura - are lifelong members of the Johnny Sexton fan club. Rob Kearney is another hero they worship. Ireland being the country of their birth and home for as long as they can remember, the green jerseys were out and on. Even after returning to our actual family home near Auckland, they’ll always remain a little Irish.
So I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. There’s a different mentality to how New Zealanders see rugby. The bones of 10 years we spent living in Dublin hasn’t led to much change in this regard.
Chicago in 2016 didn’t break anyone’s resolve about where the All Blacks and Ireland lie in the pecking order. Worlds apart. Soldier Field was a blip, the ‘luck of the Irish’ most people agreed and sure enough, two weeks later, when Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock were back on deck, normal service resumed at the Aviva stadium.
The same again was expected last weekend. Plucky Irish, with a few more world class players than usual, but the All Blacks don’t lose this fixture. No way.
There is no longer any clarity. Expectations have been tempered. A national arrogance, which inevitably builds when players like Kieran Read earn 100-plus caps with a winning percentage of 86.75, has softened somewhat.
Despite three losses, two on home soil, in the past 16 months with one win from three against Ireland since 2016 and the drawn Lions series, New Zealanders firmly expect to win next year’s World Cup and every game in between.
It’s not their fault. That’s a mindset created by historical excellence. The All Blacks win. The World Cup wrinkles between 1987 and 2011 have been ironed out.
I tried warning them about Ireland. I’d tell anyone who was willing to listen that a real and sustainable rivalry is about to reveal itself. Not too many people were happy with my prediction.
Most of the public presumed Isa Nacewa was talking shite. Maybe I was trying to hitch my wagon to some controversial anti-All-Black stance to build a media persona. Actually, I was working off the overwhelming evidence compiled during my second coming as a professional rugby player (I briefly retired between 2013-15 and the boots are definitely hung up now).
It’s the mentality of this Ireland team that I attempted to convey. It’s gone to another level even since Chicago.
The All Blacks just ended a season where there was nothing between them and the Springboks over two brutal games
Here’s what everyone in New Zealand now knows.
1. Ireland are a very, very good side with genuine depth (no Conor Murray or Seán O’Brien - people down here presumed they hadn’t a prayer without two starting Lions).
2. New Zealand were not only outplayed, they were outcoached by Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell. After the game, as most Kiwis were literally waking up to the fact that Read’s men had been beaten fair and square, the backlash flooded onto social media. The coaches must go. Veterans must be brought back.
Less dramatic change is required. Losing is alien to an All Black. My counter argument - if they are listening now - is the young Irish players, from James Ryan to Jacob Stockdale, feel exactly the same. Ryan’s under-20s, which included Stockdale and Andrew Porter, beat the Baby Blacks at the 2016 Junior World Cup.
There is no fear. They only want to get better. Up until last summer I witnessed this day in day out. The word was out about Ryan, a towering St Michael’s teenager, on my return to Dublin 2015. When I first landed at Leinster in 2008 these kids were autograph hunters (that tells us something in itself). That Ryan has lost just two matches as a professional - the second test in Australia and recently in Toulouse - is phenomenal. Only modern All Blacks could claim such records, until now.
I don’t need to warn Kiwis about Ryan him anymore. Not after those two tackles he put on Retallick. They are already writing about him, saying he can match the best secondrower in the world. He’s got the engine of a Rolls Royce. Smart, skilled and so young - the sky’s the limit.
The All Blacks haven’t had a true nemesis since John Eales kicked a winning goal for the Wallabies in 2000. Nobody knew who was going to prevail from test match to test match against the Australia team of Eales, George Gregan, Joe Roff, George Smith, Stephen Larkham, Stirling Mortlock - names seared into the New Zealand psyche.
The All Blacks just ended a season where there was nothing between them and the Springboks over two brutal games. In four matches - South Africa in Wellington and Pretoria, England at Twickenham and Dublin - they were outplayed physically, tactically and defensively. They lost twice; resilience and muscle memory ensured it wasn’t four defeats.
This is a wake-up call. In contrast, Ireland enter year four of Joe Schmidt’s regeneration process since the 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina. The penny has hit rock bottom regarding Joe in New Zealand. The fact this was the All Blacks strongest team and not Ireland’s best XV and that he tweaked some classic Schmidt moves to wreak havoc resonates.
The greatest New Zealand backlines are easy to select. Right now, there is a review surrounding who should play 10, 12, 13 and 15. Beauden Barrett will be in the team but it’s unclear at what position, probably outhalf, and where he should finish matches - at 10, on the bench or fullback? The Barrett type “first-five-eight” is what people love down here but Johnny Sexton’s name rings out after the Lions tour and last weekend.
Joe is the composer of Ireland’s play but Johnny’s the conductor of the orchestra. If they don’t give him World Player of the Year something is seriously wrong with the judging process. Sexton dominated 2018, not Barrett, but their personal rivalry should become rugby’s great subplot in 2019.
Ma’a Nonu has been thrown back into the mix, and I’d tend to agree that he can be the midfield solution. Yes, he’ll be 37 when the World Cup arrives but so will Rory Best. Brad Thorn played a crucial role in 2011 aged 36 and without drawing breath helped Leinster win the 2012 Heineken Cup (granted, I’m also 36 and the calves have only just recovered from Bilbao).
Dusting off my coaching hat, Nonu would be the first player I’d recall. He has returned to Auckland, having signed for the Blues after three years in France, but only Johnny and maybe one or two other players I’ve encountered throughout my career compare to Ma’a when it comes to meticulous preparation.
Speaking of second-five-eights, our term for No 12 and my final position as a player when Robbie Henshaw was injured, New Zealanders were pissed off seeing Bundee Aki perform so well.
That’s because he went offshore when many felt he still had a lot to offer the game here. Same goes for Charles Piutau joining Ulster.
Lasting respect has been achieved by Ireland beating New Zealand in a game that really mattered
If Nonu performs in Super Rugby early next year the All Blacks should definitely have a look.
I don’t think I’ll be involved with the restructured Blues coaching ticket. A lot has changed at board level. Former All Black Leon MacDonald has been appointed head coach with Tana Umaga taking an assistant role in charge of defence. I’ll talk to Leon but my hope is that he walks in and takes full control of the situation, so I am not needed at all.
There will come a time when I get back into rugby as a coach. Right now, I’m learning a new trade as a 9-5 employee for a small financial firm called Money Empire up in Ponsonby, where I’m surrounded by great coffee and even better people.
I am also working in the media, passing comment without the repercussions of winning or losing as a result of my actions. I miss the cutting edge of elite competition but there’s no rush to return.
We, Simone and I, really enjoyed Ireland’s victory at the Aviva. Some of our friends for life were on the pitch. Simone was in contact with the wives throughout the game. Mia, Elle, Lucy and Laura loved seeing Johnny and Rob in action. There was no confusion about what side of the fence they were on. That might change in later years, or not.
A warning, though, to the Irish and everyone else: Steve Hansen is as shrewd as they come. He will go away and hatch a new plan. Maybe Hansen saw this defeat in his mind’s eye. He definitely considered it. He was not taken by surprise. He’s already contemplated the next move.
Kieran Read only had a poor game by Kieran Read standards. He still made 17 tackles and 15 carries. Same goes for Brodie Retallick. The pair of them won’t repeat these performances in the same game, ever again.
The television studio was interesting afterwards. The old All Blacks took defeat graciously, knowing they had witnessed a proper test match, with genuine humility from Mils, Steven and Wyatt. Muliaina of course played alongside Bundee and Kieran at Connacht.
Lasting respect has been achieved by Ireland beating New Zealand in a game that really mattered.
International rugby needs this rivalry.