'We should have beaten them four years ago but let them off the hook. There's belief we can do it'
Published 20/11/2010 | 05:00
So then, how do you nurture confidence for an assignment you've been coming up short in since the Stone Age? Call in Olli Rehn?
The All Blacks are in town and, in some respects, this means that all the customary buzz words of rugby analysis can be suspended. Because the most important area of combat for Ireland today is that six inches between the ears.
In sport, tactics become relevant only if belief is already in the bank. I sometimes think back on games we lost to New Zealand during my time as Irish coach and feel pretty deep frustration that we still have that big stark zero against our name in the 'win' column.
We should certainly have beaten them in Hamilton four years ago, but uncharacteristic indiscipline on our part allowed them dig out a 34-23 win. This was utterly galling.
We were the most disciplined team in world rugby at the time, conceding a miserly average of just eight penalties per game. Yet, that day, we panicked from a position of strength and gave them the opportunities to kick their way out of trouble.
In Auckland the following weekend, a couple of horror decisions by referee Jonathan Kaplan brought about a 10-point turnaround against us as we went down 17-27. To this day, I believe we could (and probably should) have won both those Test matches.
Instead, history now padlocks this fixture against Irish optimism. The bookies' odds (I saw New Zealand quoted at a prohibitive 1/14) today probably reflect the general public's expectation. It is as if we are being pitched into battle against some kind of superior race.
This is the biggest difficulty now facing Declan Kidney -- overcoming that psychological gulf that seems to have written itself into the build-up to this Test.
Steve Hansen, the All Blacks assistant coach, is a good friend of mine and I know for sure that they have serious respect for a lot of the players wearing green today. But they will know, too, that they are dealing with a slightly wounded animal. Irish confidence levels seem a little low and it is in the DNA of New Zealand rugby to go for the jugular early.
We all saw what they did to a supposedly resurgent Scotland last weekend, so there is no doubting the threat of a bad beating today.
That said, this backs-to-the-wall scenario, historically, suits Ireland. New Zealand will be aware of this because we have pushed them to the wire before when national expectation was on the floor.
Yet, an Ireland win today will require an extraordinary effort and set of circumstances. I don't doubt the team will take the field believing they can do so, even if that belief cannot possibly be as deep-rooted as when they were reigning Grand Slam champions.
And therein lies the crux.
Confidence is a fragile condition that can ebb and flow like the tide in Dublin Bay. Ronan O'Gara admitted that Ireland's current reserves of the stuff were low last weekend and that's not the ideal backdrop to a Test match against the world's best rugby team.
Declan's decision to delay announcing his starting XV until Thursday was an interesting one. This represented a break with tradition, though I gather the players were told the team on Tuesday. Declan was wise to do this.
In my experience, players prefer to get the news sooner rather than later because it gives them, both individually and as a team, four full days to prepare mentally for the battle. To halve that preparation time would not have made much sense.
Why Declan chose to delay the announcement, only he can say. It may have been a simple exercise in building trust. By telling the players in confidence, the coach was perhaps effectively challenging them to keep it strictly among themselves for 48 hours, which -- in an age of texting, emails, Facebook and Twitter -- isn't easy. If so, it seems to me that the players probably passed this test. Passing today's will be a mite more difficult.
It's a cliche, I know, but a good start is absolutely vital for Ireland. Put it this way, if we concede a couple of early scores and give New Zealand some momentum, it could be a very long day in the Aviva.
Because, when we talk about confidence, we do so knowing full well that a bad start will just suck any remaining reserves of it out of this Irish team. Conversely, every minute that ticks by with Ireland still in the game will nurture hope of an upset.
A one-score game with just 10 minutes remaining would put New Zealand under the kind of pressure they are not accustomed to on northern hemisphere fields.
That, then, has to be the hope. But putting ourselves in that position is easier said than done. We have had problems at the set-piece on successive weekends now -- the line-out against South Africa and the scrum against Samoa. This is worrying because it immediately presents New Zealand with two obvious areas to attack.
The All Blacks will come after us in the set-piece today and, if they disrupt our sources of primary possession, frankly, we have no chance of staying close to them. The hope then has to be for a dramatic improvement in the Irish set-piece and a far better quality supply of ball going to the talented Irish backline.
In possession, Ireland must be brave. Our game plan must translate into boxing smart, striking the correct channels with accuracy and efficiency and, generally, finding the right balance between running and kicking against a team as clinical as New Zealand. This is the equivalent of walking a tightrope.
Run when it's not on and the odds are it will result in a turnover. Believe me, turnovers are virtual slam dunks to teams of this calibre. Likewise, kicking inaccurately or at the wrong time is an invitation for the opposition to counter-attack. New Zealand have established themselves in recent years as the great innovators of counter-attack, a badge of honour formerly worn by the Pacific Island nations.
So Ireland's defence has to be top drawer, both systemically and technically. The slightest lapses will be punished ruthlessly in multiples of seven. Above all, we will have to compete physically today. Australia will out-skill you, South Africa -- as we witnessed two weeks ago -- will out-muscle you. But New Zealand will do both. That's why they are number one in the world.
There are a lot of moving parts that have to fall into place to create the special performance that will give Ireland a first victory against the All Blacks. Has the team that performance in them?
Conventional wisdom would probably say no. But, as economist John Kenneth Galbraith once put it, in conventional wisdom, we associate truth with convenience.
Wouldn't it be the perfect day to inconvenience New Zealand?