Friday 24 February 2017

Billy Keane: Hearts pumping and studs thumping as Schmidt's men aim to avoid starring in All Blacks 'Revenge for Chicago' movie

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Rory Best leads his Ireland team into battle against the All Blacks today Picture: Sportsfile
Rory Best leads his Ireland team into battle against the All Blacks today Picture: Sportsfile

The Haka is a declaration of war. The All Blacks are hurtin', hurtin' bad. I know this sounds like cowboy picture lingo or even presidential rhetoric but the words are true.

"Revenge for Chicago" will be the war cry and the All Blacks will improve. That much is certain. But so will we.

Kick off is at 5.30pm here, which is in sleepy-eyed time in New Zealand. There won't be a kiwi picked or a sheep sheared. Here at home men and women with shiny pants will slip off the edge of their seats. The whole of both countries will be watching the rematch. The whole of the rugby world will watch the rematch. Most of us were beginning to think we would never live to see an Irish team beat the All Blacks and now the win is there forever.

There will be reunions, presentations and endless recall. In time there will have been nearly as many in Chicago as were in the GPO in 1916.

Ireland waited 111 years for a win over the All Blacks and it could be that by the late evening we will have beaten The Invincibles twice in a fortnight. The big question is are we satisfied, or do we want more? It's all about the hunger game. Desire, desire.

Ireland have never beaten New Zealand on home soil which should be motivation enough in itself. There's a confidence in Ireland but still there in the background is that terrible gnawing fear that the All Blacks can wipe teams out. They scored 14 points in a matter of minutes in Soldier Field. A late knock- on from Kiwi hands saved us in Chicago.

This rematch will be ferocious. This is a certainty. We hope there will be fair play. Rugby found its soul when Anthony died. Our hero's passing was responsible for the rebirth of sportsmanship all over the world.

On Friday night last in Thomond, the Maori All Blacks captain Ash Dixon placed an All Blacks jersey in front of the Haka phalanx. The black jersey had the words AF engraved on the front, and the No 8 on the back. The Maoris performed the Haka with their usual ferocity before a packed but hushed stadium.

When the Haka was over the captain carefully folded the jersey neatly again, such was the respect he had for his own heritage, Anthony Foley and Munster.

Two young boys wearing red duvet coats walked slowly out on to the field. Ash handed the jersey to Axel's sons Tony and Dan. The crowd clapped the captain, Tony and Dan. It was a beautiful, tender moment. And then Munster, as is the custom against touring teams, tore into the Maoris. Another big win.

The Irish players are very much aware Axel is helping out. The score in Chicago was 40-29 and the score when Axel played against the All Blacks was 40-29. When players pick up on seemingly random connections you know then that they truly believe.

Tyrone's leader Cormac McAnallen died suddenly in 2004. His team dedicated the All-Ireland win in 2005 to their fallen comrade. Mickey Harte, a very spiritual man, had no doubt but that Cormac was there all through.

Ireland have the momentum and now with one win behind us and a two-week break since Chicago we do have a chance.

That's all we can ever say when we play New Zealand. We are up against one of the great teams from the greatest rugby nation of them all.

But we have world-class half-backs in Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.

Murray was outstanding in Chicago. We empathise with those forgetful squirrels when they cannot find their buried winter store of hibernation nuts.

Last week, we had a paragraph ready in praise of Murray but it was lost somewhere in the neverland between cut and paste. He tackled everything that moved in Chicago. Murray's kicking wasn't so much measured as calibrated and his try lifted a nation.

Sexton too kicked brilliantly against the All Blacks. If you're not perfect and give the ball too much distance then they will strike back at you. This team of all the skills can score from anywhere. The ball must be kicked higher than the sky. No one does Garryowens like us. As the philanderer said, "it's all about the chase".

Sexton is up against Beauden Barrett, the newly-crowned World Rugby Player of the Year. And rightly so. Beauden would slip through the mesh in a fishing net.

Sexton has only played a handful of games since last April. Expect him to be much fitter this week.

It will be some battle between Sexton and the man who has been voted in as the best No 10 in the world.

Winter inevitably saw off the autumn of the long spring when foolish flowers were conned into blooming in November. The match this evening might be one for socks in bed but the lights and the baying crowd will make sure the heat is kept on New Zealand.

The All Blacks will target Devin Toner. Our skyscraper jumped higher than the Sears Tower in Chicago. The All Blacks are still down a player or two in the second-row and we might get the maul going again.

But I expect Joe Schmidt to do the unexpected. Joe knows how the All Blacks play and think.

New Zealand's coach the canny Steve Hansen said Ireland are favourites. Ah Steve but did you check with the bookies? Your team are 1/8 which sort of contradicts your assertion.

That means Steve you must put on ten dollars to win one. The loan sharks are giving better rates. But we have a chance. Ireland will not lack heart and our boys have won the heart of a nation.

There's an Edgar Allen Poe short story called 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and the murderer could hear his victim's heart beating long after he died. Thumpity -thump it went under the floorboards.

Then there was a love song back about 40 years ago. Little Lulu's big heart went boom- bang-a-bang. I was very fond of Lulu. She had a lovely smile.

I can hear my heart beating right now. The very thought of the Haka is enough. Our ears have built-in stethoscopes.

I can hear the rat-a-tat of studs on the dressing room floor and the last words spoken. There's the roar of the crowd and the geysers of fire when the teams run on to the field.

I can hear 'The Soldier's Song' that wasn't sung in Soldier Field and the shoulder-to-shoulder of 'Ireland's Call'.

Then comes the ancient challenge of the Haka. The stands will photo-flash on and off like pubs at closing time. The All Blacks put on their game faces in the respectful silence of the Dublin night.

If time could be traversed like a scrolling airline calendar, today could become tomorrow with the rub of a mouse. I can't wait.

Then there's the delicious sense of waiting for a treat. The match is as slow coming as a pay rise. I wonder if there's room with the forgetful squirrel who lost his nuts. A day's hibernation and it's game time.

We'll never stick this. The heart is a big bass drum now getting belted by a big bass drummer.

Ah stop looking at the clock. Tick tock.

Our boys will not stand back. Whatever happens, we will never stand back. Never. Bring it on. Ireland you will not stand alone.

Irish Independent

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