Ireland eye All Blacks scalp
November 9, 2010
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip receives his marching orders during his side's loss to New Zealand earlier this year © Getty Images
Ahead of their recent clash with New Zealand, much of the pre-match hype centred on the fact that England had not defeated the All Blacks since 2003.
Their subsequent, gallant, defeat extended that run to nine losses since Martin Johnson captained them to victory in Wellington seven years ago. However, England can still reflect on six victories from 34 meetings with the world's premier rugby nation.
Ireland? Try no wins in 23 attempts. Munster did record that famous 12-0 triumph in 1978 and there was a 10-10 draw in the old Lansdowne Road in 1973 but there is no question that the All Blacks have a historical, psychological edge over Ireland that has extended into the professional era.
Since 2000, Ireland have picked up four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam as well as several victories over South Africa, Australia, England and France, testifying to the country's emergence as a major rugby force following the dark days of the 1990s.
But in those 10 years, nine meetings with the All Blacks have produced no joy and plenty of pain, the most recent dose coming in New Plymouth last June when Ireland were hammered 66-28 after being reduced to 14 men through the dismissal of Jamie Heaslip in the first quarter.
They have come close in that time. In 2001, the day Richie McCaw won his first cap, Warren Gatland's side played some scintillating rugby and opened up a healthy lead before the All Blacks clicked into gear, launched Jonah Lomu at David Humphreys' 10 channel and finished with six tries and a 40-29 victory.
Two years later, in miserable conditions in Dunedin, Eddie O'Sullivan's side had New Zealand on the rack but were undone by the Adidas 'pig' ball which Ronan O'Gara was unable to control off the tee and the Irish went down 15-6.
Since then, a couple of decent performances on the 2006 summer tour is all Ireland have to cling to and, heading into the November 20 clash in the revamped Lansdowne, no-one is predicting an end to this sorry run of defeats.
The loss to South Africa has copper-fastened the pessimism but if we were to look at the glass as being half-full from an Irish perspective, there are certain positives to ponder.
Ireland lost by only two points to a Springbok side that was utterly dominant in the front five (winning 50% of Ireland's lineout throws and regular penalties at scrum time) and controlled possession and territory for the majority of the game. Furthermore, though the Ireland line was breached twice, the first South African try came from an intercept after sloppy Irish lineout ball and the second resulted from a split-second miscommunication in a defensive line that, otherwise, had an excellent evening.
There is also the motivational factor. The likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter Stringer are into their 30s now and have ticked the majority of boxes in the club and international games. The outstanding disappointments in those stellar careers have been Ireland's poor World Cup performances and their failure to beat New Zealand.
Then you have Heaslip. The Naas man is rightly regarded as one of the best No.8s in the business, a fact he reinforced on last year's Lions tour and in his form for Leinster and Ireland in the past 12 months.
Even on the back foot against the Springboks, Heaslip was a commanding presence and he goes into the New Zealand match with a simmering determination to atone for what happened in New Plymouth. The rush of blood to the head which saw Heaslip's knee connect with the head of McCaw was borne out of deep frustration after New Zealand cynical breakdown tactics when the Irish were on their line pushing hard for a score.
The incident blew over fairly quickly, a result of Heaslip's five-week ban being served over the summer when the Irish media's attention was on the soccer World Cup and the domestic GAA championships. Nonetheless, though it has not had any lingering effects on the Leinster No.8's career, it was an out-of-character moment (Heaslip stood up and apologised in the dressing room afterwards for letting the team down) that he wants to put right.
Ireland can also take hope from the fact that that, even with 14 men, they managed to score four tries against New Zealand last June and, though you could argue that the home team relaxed mentally knowing the game was won, not many sides do that to the All Blacks and their management team was far from happy afterwards.
However, Ireland are sunk from the off if they do not run out in Dublin believing they can achieve that famous first win. That is something that is easy to say in team meetings or in the dressing room but far harder to put into practice when facing up to those black jerseys.
A good performance against Samoa would go some distance to restoring the belief that was lost against South Africa and coach Declan Kidney has picked a strong side for that encounter. Captain Brian O'Driscoll leads a team of heavy-hitters out against the South Sea Islanders including the likes of O'Gara, Stringer, O'Callaghan, Heaslip, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe.
It is all building up to a fascinating 24th meeting with the All Blacks and, while there may well be an element of straw-clutching to all of this, Kidney is a coach with a long record of upsetting the odds. As he says himself: "We have never beaten them but it will happen one day."
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