Ireland's blackest day
SOMEONE rather aptly described it as Irish rugby's Vietnam moment – those who lived through it are likely to wake up at night screaming as they are tormented by flashbacks of that darkest of days.
It was the worst day in Irish rugby history. The final whistle was a relief from the horror of the soundest thrashing an Irish rugby team – indeed an Irish professional team of any code – has ever had to live through.
No one who was part of that 60-0 defeat is ever likely to forget that feeling of complete and utter failure when the whistle mercifully sounded to bring the carnage to an end.
That it came a mere week after the same Ireland team had almost recorded their greatest triumph – a first win over New Zealand – makes it all the harder to fathom.
And the six intervening months have done little to dull the ache that remains.
Confidence had been high that perhaps the tour of 2012 would finally give Ireland that most creditable of scalps.
Paul O'Connell hadn't travelled and he was missed in the first Test. But Ireland's line-out had been magnificent in the second, with Donnacha Ryan really coming of age.
When Gordon D'Arcy was ruled out for the third Test because of injury, there was no cause for panic. Declan Kidney and the coaches had options.
Fergus McFadden could be shifted into his favoured inside-centre position. Keith Earls had started the tour in the centre and was fit again after missing the second game. The Ireland coaches had different – and strange – ideas, though, and an SOS was sent to the Algarve for Paddy Wallace.
How calling a player up from his family holiday made sense to the management team remains a mystery.
It was patently unfair to the player and to the squad, especially those who were totally overlooked.
Nothing went wrong in the match… for six whole minutes. And for those six minutes, Ireland believed. New Zealand were making the early running, looking dangerous, but Ireland were coping.
A backlash had been expected after the previous week's match. Ireland had scared New Zealand and the All Black players had been hearing about it from a disgruntled public all week.
They hadn't been spared in the media either. The 'New Zealand Herald', in their match report, described Ireland's near-miss: "The men in green had the All Blacks on a plate – beaten up, shell-shocked, panicking and looking decidedly unlike world champions."
The report in the 'Herald' went on: "Ireland were good. They were strong in all the areas where they were weak in the first Test and they grew in confidence. Their scrum, an eggshell in Auckland, won penalties in Christchurch and there was some attacking venom left in Brian O'Driscoll."
It was, perhaps, the performance of the year from Ireland.
The one-off victory over Australia during the 2011 World Cup had sustained the team through to the 2012 Six Nations. But the wheels came off during that tournament with losses to England and Wales. Some pride was restored on the back of the draw against France but in truth Ireland – and Kidney – needed a big scalp.
The New Zealand players had spent the week in between the Tests stewing and spewing. They wanted to atone.
And where Ireland had been menacing and full of inventiveness and intent in Christchurch, they were limp in Hamilton.
When Sam Cane touched down for his first international try – after a gorgeous offload from Sonny Bill Williams – it was game over for Ireland.
What happened for the next 74 minutes was horrifying. It was, as the players admitted afterwards, thoroughly humiliating.
Ireland captain O'Driscoll said afterwards: "That scoreline is a bit embarrassing. They were very, very clinical at the breakdown and we were terrible. That combination resulted in 60 points.
"We knew that we had to start well and we didn't and that's what the All Blacks do – when they get a 15 or 20- point lead they just play their own game and you're running after them for 80 minutes.
"We started well last week and that was the impetus we needed. We started terribly this week and they really came at us. To be 21 points down before 20 minutes was up, we were going to be chasing the game and we just made too many errors." The result also threw up a host of questions, some of which remain unanswered.
For starters, no one has been able to properly explain why Ireland were so limp in Hamilton. The team that started in that final Test included 11 Heineken Cup finalists and yet they were beaten out the gate.
Another unanswered question: Who thought it was a good idea to green-light a three-Test tour of New Zealand at the end of one of the longest seasons in memory?
The World Cup was still a vivid memory, two Ireland teams had contested the Heineken Cup final and instead of recuperating, they were playing the best (and hardest) team in the world three times... that decision still makes no sense.
Also, is the much heralded IRFU Player Management Scheme all it's cracked up to be?
If micro-managing the players at national level is such a good idea – and apparently Ireland's professionals are the best rested in the world game – then why was the team so lifeless in Hamilton?
Why, under Kidney, has this Ireland team been able to record one-off performances – like that against Australia in 2011 World Cup and the second Test in Christchurch – but unable to maintain any consistency in their results?
Where has the focus of that 2009 Grand Slam team evaporated to?
Those questions, and a whole lot more, remain unanswered after the recent November series of matches.
Ireland recorded a much-needed win over Argentina to close out the autumn games.
But even that performance and result underpins the belief that Ireland always have the potential to record those one-off games when their backs are to the wall.
In 2009, they were able to beat all comers... are those days long gone? Have we gone back to being a team
that will only ever have one or two days of joy on the international stage?
Leinster, Munster and now Ulster have been so magnificent in the European club game that surely that sort of form is transferable to the international arena... isn't it?
Of course, the biggest unanswered question is whether a changing of the coaching ticket is what's needed. Kidney, Gert Smal and Les Kiss have been in charge since that 2009 season, and coaching teams do have a natural life-span.
There is a belief that if Ireland perform well in the 2013 Six Nations, the management team will have their contracts extended to take in the 2015 World Cup.
That is speculation at this juncture and it's not even known if Kidney et al want to continue beyond their current contracts.
Kidney declined to give an answer to that question at the recent Rugby World Cup draw in London. It remains a topical issue.
There are those who believe that a new team should be recruited. And there is merit in that suggestion.
But with the new generation of players beginning to take ownership of the team, there is a freshness beginning to emerge.
And these players have not been listening to the coaches for the last three/four years.
Ireland's World Cup pool does make the position more attractive than it was before November, although a prospective quarter-final clash with New Zealand isn't all that palatable. Avoiding that scenario, though, could be in Ireland's own hands. But only if the way we manage and play the game evolves.
Change cannot be confined to the pitch and the professional players. It must run right through the game – at all levels – and through the corridors of power.
What did the Test in Hamilton teach Irish rugby?
That international success, as dictated by New Zealand, owes much to the physicality and to the sheer bulk of the players involved, matched, of course, by their level of skill.
Australia have attempted to counter that by developing a lighter, more speedy, more instinctive style of play.
Ireland, one suspects, will never have the biggest team of players in the game and they must look to other ways of matching the top teams. Physical conditioning will always be an imperative for professional players, but Ireland must invest much time in developing the proper skill set within the international squad.
The emerging group of young players currently thrusting for international recognition offers encouragement in this regard.
The emphasis has to be on technical excellence to ensure a sufficient supply of possession from the set-pieces that are so critical in rugby.
The issue for the IRFU is to ensure that the team of coaches in charge of training and preparation have the necessary talent to bring those players to the optimum level of expertise.
Only then can we dream of overcoming the best and impacting upon the World Cup.