Tuesday 26 September 2017

Brendan Fanning: Facing into yet another bleak winter

As ever, Ireland will travel in hope but the touring party is light in some pivotal areas, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

May 1992: it started with the LA Dodgers having to postpone three games due to the race riots that followed the beating handed out to Rodney King. Then Johnny Logan wins Eurovision -- again. And finally Bishop Eamon Casey announces that he's open to the idea of Father's Day cards.



The last of those stories broke in the week the Ireland rugby squad left for New Zealand. It was their first trip there since 1976, an extraordinary gap by today's standards, and in the interim an equally extraordinary gap had opened up between the best rugby nation in the world, and one that had no interest in taking the title.

Thankfully, the 20th anniversary of that trip has seen a shift in the relationship between the two nations. Ireland still can't beat New Zealand, but at least -- unlike back then -- we make some real effort at getting up to the required speed. Expressions like 'wake-up call' had not entered the sporting lexicon back then. This was the equivalent of being woken in the night by intruders who wanted more than the milk money.

What started with a struggle against lowly South Canterbury in Timaru had already started to look ominous by the time the tourists got to Auckland 10 days later. From the late 1980s Auckland had been going about a new way of training and playing and by the time Ireland fetched up they were well down the road. So we had an unambitious and poorly prepared international side, minus a raft of players who somehow were unavailable to travel, against the best provincial side in the world. Auckland won 62-7.

It was rugby from a different planet, played by athletes of a different size and shape. Two stories emerged from the Ireland changing room afterwards: the first was that manager Noel Murphy went around trying to console the players telling them that the All Blacks wouldn't be as good -- and he was right -- and the other was that when Auckland centre Eroni Clarke came looking to swap some gear, the only player's shorts that would fit around his tree trunk thighs were prop Nick Popplewell's.

The following Saturday Ireland gave credence to Murphy's law and ran the All Blacks to 24-21. The effect of this, sadly, was to reinforce the notion that you could stumble about, pioneering amateurism ahead of professionalism -- as the IRFU did -- and still be occasionally competitive in the international game.

The tour ended in the now-demolished Athletic Park, a uniquely configured ground located on a wind-swept hill in suburban Wellington. It had the crazy open-topped Millard Stand, which owed more to the Kiwis' love of adventure than comfort. Its changing-room area on the other hand felt subterranean. Dark and cold, that's where coach Ciarán Fitzgerald stood, talking about the need to learn the lessons of physical preparation to play winning rugby. It would be a while before that idea caught on.

* * * * *

It was appropriate that the weather here last week was mostly borrowed from a Mediterranean climate, because the second of New Zealand's two training camps, in Wellington last week, was cut short by a hail storm. Sometimes when you're preparing in brilliant sunshine you can forget what lies ahead. A New Zealand winter, that's what.

New coach Steve Hansen will cut five from that group today and announce a 30-man squad for the series with Ireland. When we say new coach of course he's been hanging around as Graham Henry's sounding board for the last eight years. Now Ian Foster and selector Grant Fox will be his back-up men.

The first item on Hansen's agenda will be to maintain the unbeaten record against Ireland. Not the cheeriest of blokes, you could charge top dollar into the post-match press conference if somehow Ireland break new ground in Auckland on Saturday. The consensus is that the first Test represents Ireland's best chance of success, given that it's the tail end of our season.

In fact, it will be 51 weeks at tour's end since they started on the World Cup road last year. In those circumstances a bad start, like 2010 for example, would make the following fortnight torturous for there is no prospect of a warm-weather Australian leg to round off, as in previous years.

In that case Hansen will ramp it up for next weekend. Having said goodbye to a group that contained Brad Thorn, John Afoa, Anthony Boric and Mils Muliaina, Hansen now has a reshaped core supported by a handful of new faces. The clutch of forwards who will still be there for 2015 comprises Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and Victor Vito.

Clearly Richie McCaw, who has had two starts and one off the bench coming to this weekend in Super 15, will be gone by then, so expect to see an impressive 20-year-old tearaway in Sam Cane walking in his shadow for the next while. And Aaron Cruden, who has played some really good football in the Super 15, will be hot on the heels of Dan Carter.

Inside Carter, we'll see Andy Ellis again, but Hansen will have to choose between Piri Weepu and newcomer Aaron Smith as back-up. Weepu's fitness issues are the stuff of legend at this point.

The All Blacks usually like to spring some freakish specimen on the wing, and the latest model will be the Hurricanes' Julian Savea. The 20-year-old had a pile of defensive issues with ball in behind him last season but has come across a whole lot more competent this term. With ball in hand, he is an awesome prospect.

Less flash but with a very hard edge is another 20-year-old, second row giant Brodie Retallick who should also make the squad. He has been outstanding for the Chiefs in Super rugby. With Paul O'Connell out of the frame, Hansen might feel it an appropriate environment to pitch this young man into Brad Thorn's tightside locking role. He might go one step further and stick him behind his Chiefs team-mate, yet another 20-year-old, the 138kg prop Ben Tameifuna. More likely this brick outhouse will be left till later in the series, coming off the bench.

By the time the third Test wraps up in Hamilton, the new coach will hope he has three boxes ticked: record versus Ireland secure; the New Zealand public onside; the beginnings of a new blend to take them to England in 2015.

* * * * *

There was a tagline on Twitter last week, from a rugby website, that can only be described as world-class. 'Unwelcome loss for Kidney,' it declared. Only a little shuffle of the prepositions -- 'of' replacing 'for' -- could have bettered this gem.

Games against the Barbarians are usually uncomfortable affairs. And right now Declan Kidney is sitting on a sharp stick, not just because his side have made it two on the trot against this outfit, rather for all the awkwardness it throws up. Like his tour squad selection.

The irony of ditching Paddy Wallace just when the Ulster 12 looked in the prime of his life has already been dealt with. This is the first time Ireland will have toured that part of the world since the turn of the century with only two outhalves, or at least without a third player with enough experience there to hold the fort if attacked.

The obvious casualty in this was Ian Madigan, whose form demanded a spin Down Under. It was presented after the squad announcement that this was a cost issue, and that under the new touring schedule, which will see us on three-Test tours in one country rather than two, the incoming nation can arrive with 28 players whose costs are then picked up by the host union. If you want to bring extras, you have to foot the bill yourself.

According to the IRB, however, the tours agreement drawn up in 2010 means the tourists are covered for up 46 personnel. It's up to them how they want to balance that group between players, medical and management.

However, in the time between the union saying cost was a factor in limiting it to 29 players -- a handy excuse for leaving Madigan behind -- and the pile-up of injuries, suddenly on Wednesday morning they were declaring a willingness to bring 31, which became 30 when Paul O'Connell pulled out. So it seems selection policy, rather than pounds, shillings and pence, was the issue. Moreover, a union spokesman said the squad was selected to be "competitive," and "not as a development tool to bring players along for the experience."

Eh, so what were they doing in 2010 and 2008 and 2006 when the roster varied from 30-33? Going on their holiers? It's hard to fathom why Declan Kidney would not want to give a player like Madigan the value of a spin down south. Now, if something happens either Jonny Sexton or Ronan O'Gara, the replacement will have to be flown cold from home.

At least another young halfback, Paul Marshall, will be on board from the start courtesy of Isaac Boss's calf issues. We should have predicted that Boss wouldn't make it, for no sooner had Kidney accepted that the scrumhalf had something worth accepting, but in a neat symmetry with long-time favourite Wallace being overlooked he couldn't make the start line.

Dan Tuohy is another who has struggled to drag Kidney away from the tried and trusted when it comes to picking his squads. Two years ago on the corresponding tour, he became a quiz question when scoring within seconds of his debut, in New Plymouth, and then nothing. Well, not quite nothing, but certainly close enough to square one to make it feel like nothing.

The closest he came to the Six Nations was the original training squad of 32, from which he was dumped out the rear end when it came time for Kidney to pick those who might play. A little peeved perhaps?

"Yeah, I was pissed off," he says. "And again when Mike McCarthy got the chance when Paulie pulled out (ahead of the Scotland game). You're always pissed off when somebody's ahead of you. I came away from that, not downbeat, but focusing on the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup because I knew that if we could get through to the semis or final or whatever, the more Ulster were playing in these high-pressure games the more lads would be represented in the Ireland squad."

And sure enough, unlike two years ago when he was there as a filler-in, this time Tuohy travels on merit. The 2010 trip painted a clear picture for him of what's required.

"We can either go over there and roll over and die or we can have a good crack at it. Not many teams beat the All Blacks and Ireland have never done it, so why not be the first? What's the point in going there and not giving it everything?

"If it's been an 11 or 12-month season we're still going over there to do a job. To roll over and die is embarrassing -- it's embarrassing as a professional. You have a reputation to uphold, wearing the shirt, the reputation of your name. I don't see the point in going over there and going, 'Oh bollocks it's the All Blacks, nobody expects us to win anyway.' What's the point in that?"

None at all Dan. None at all.

THE SCHEDULE

June 9: Eden Park, Auckland, 8.35am (Irish time)

June 16: Rugby League Park, Christchurch, 8.35

June 23: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, 8.35

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