Thursday 27 July 2017

Tony Ward: We are Irish, we are special and we can overcome the greatest team in history

Garry Ringrose during Ireland’s training at the University of Illinois in Chicago this week. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose during Ireland’s training at the University of Illinois in Chicago this week. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Today Ireland take on New Zealand for only the second time on neutral territory - the Chicago showdown will, I suspect, lead to many more coffer-filling 'friendlies' of this nature.

The one other meeting was in Johannesburg at the 1995 World Cup, when Gary Halpin had the audacity to cross for an early try. That score - and Halpin giving the All Blacks the finger in the aftermath - only served to awaken the New Zealand giant from its slumber.

Five tries followed, including a brace from the late, great Jonah Lomu.

It was typical Ireland in the final stages of the amateur era.

There had been some close calls - indeed I was involved in one myself at Lansdowne Road in '78 when Andy Dalton crossed for a winning try in the corner with the game entering injury-time tied at six points apiece.

There was another in '73, with Tom Grace's late try followed by Barry McGann's post-shaver.

However, the general pattern of the amateur era was the Ireland storm for an hour followed by the New Zealand calm and a bucket-load of points in the final quarter.

Professionalism has at least put an end to that, with Ireland the match of almost any team in terms of fitness and conditioning.

Reinvents

I say 'almost any team' because there is still one clear exception. No country reinvents its rugby more consistently than the Kiwis.

Far from resting on the laurels of a second successive World Cup triumph, the All Blacks have extended their winning run to 18 games, despite the international retirement of five players who would be contenders for an all-time New Zealand XV - Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Dan Carter.

They have kicked on, and no team in any era has become more deadly in the final quarter than this New Zealand group.

It is why in my view they are now the best of the best, and given what has gone before, that is truly saying something.

The biggest challenge for Joe Schmidt is how you keep a lid on that final quarter and the black energy that erupts when every opposition put before them is fading badly.

If it relates to pure strength and conditioning the antidote would be obvious, but it is about so much more than that.

Beating Australia for that world record 18th win didn't make them the greatest rugby team of all time - they have been by some way the best for some time now.

I don't quite buy the notion that they are the greatest sports team ever.

The best comparison I can draw is with the concept of 'Total Football' introduced by Ajax and Holland in the early '70, where numbers on shirts lost their relevance as players interchanged seamlessly between back, middle and front.

Rugby may be a lot more complex but for this period of ever-extending All Black dominance, the same principle holds.

Because of the way they play at every level from club through Super Rugby into the Test arena, I find myself wanting New Zealand to win every game they play. Not today, though.

Can Ireland minus Sean O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony and Iain Henderson beat the greatest rugby team in the history of the game at the 29th attempt?

My answer is yes, and it will be the same before we face down the Haka again in the Aviva in a fortnight's time.

Do I think Ireland will win today? No, but the players believe they can create their own piece of history.

Show me a player who doesn't believe he can win every game he plays and I'll show you an impostor. Of course you are aware when you are the underdog, but that adds to the motivation.

The absence of three major engine-room figures in Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano is a massive blow, even to a team with New Zealand's enviable strength in depth.

For Devin Toner, Ultan Dillane and Donnacha Ryan, what an opportunity to come of age. This is a chance for one at least to map out a route to becoming the next Paul O'Connell.

However, the All Blacks have a clear advantage in terms of recent game-time together.

They are at the end of a magnificent Championship campaign where aside from the opening half against the Pumas, they utterly dominated the other five-and-a-half games involving the top four teams from last year's World Cup.

I dearly want Ireland to perform and win this evening in Chicago, where the local Cubs have lit the way.

Unpredictability

The beauty of sport is its unpredictability but that unpredictability must be backed by self-belief - individual above collective.

Win the personal battles and the collective will look after itself.

The fact that players like Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery are set to be involved against the All Blacks excites me no end.

I do not expect us to win and yet crave a performance befitting this unique occasion. I dream of a 'were you there in the Polo Grounds in 1947?' sort of day.

And yet we could not be looking for that first win at a more challenging time.

All evidence points to the All Blacks, but we are Irish and we are special.

Take Ireland to make this day special too but New Zealand to extend that 111-year dream for another fortnight at least.

Irish Independent

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