No better time to Finally end this Kiwi curse
Published 04/06/2010 | 05:00
IN 1992, the Ireland squad travelled to New Zealand for a two-Test series and, upon arrival at their hotel in Dunedin, were confronted by a bizarre television ad promoting their clashes with the All Blacks.
It began with a blast of diddly-eye music before a cartoon leprechaun danced a jig across the screen chanting: "The Oirish are comin! The Oirish are comin!" while waving his shillelagh wildly above him.
It may have created the slight impression that Ireland's challenge was being taken less than seriously, which certainly appeared to be the case in the first Test when the Irish almost pulled off a famous victory against their sluggish opponents before eventually succumbing 24-21. The following week in Wellington, New Zealand put 59 points on the hapless Paddies.
Three years later at the World Cup, Ireland gave New Zealand a right rattle in their pool opener before the All Blacks, with Jonah Lomu rampant, roared back for a five-try win. The Irish situation was not helped by ebullient prop Gary Halpin giving them a double-digit salute after scoring the first try (although he claimed he was showing them his 'six-shooters') breaking the age-old rule about never antagonising an All Black.
Ireland have never quite known how to handle the New Zealand rugby team and the mystique that goes with the famous black jersey. Players who faced the All Blacks in the Wayne Shelford era speak of the shot of fear that crippled them when 'Buck' led the haka and how the best tactic was to "focus on the blonde fellahs because if you tried to stare down a Maori you'd s**t yourself".
It is the only international scalp Ireland have never claimed in 105 years of this fixture's existence and it was encouraging to hear Declan Kidney speaking positively this week about the opportunity that statistic provides.
The Ireland coach pointed out how professionalism has levelled the playing field. For a start, fixtures have become more regular -- eight meetings since 2001 -- and while familiarity has not bred contempt it has certainly lessened the aura of invincibility.
Professionalism has also brought a steady stream of Kiwis into Irish rugby with the accompanying realisation that these are ordinary flesh and blood players, rather than super-humans cloaked in black.
Munster's sterling showing against the All Blacks in 2008 provides the template for next week's clash. The province were without a string of their frontline players and written off in every quarter but refused to be intimidated and came within a whisker of victory.
There is too much negativity surrounding this journey south. Keith Earls is the latest player to be added to an injury list that includes some of the premier professionals in the Irish game and this spate of withdrawals has cast a pall over the expedition.
New Zealand is known as the 'Land of the Long White Cloud,' but in certain parts is more akin to the land that time forgot, with New Plymouth and Rotorua falling firmly into that category. An absence of escapism means the squad being corralled in their hotel which will either drain them of energy and enthusiasm or help to foster determination and motivation -- not hard to locate when every taxi driver and bell boy feels obliged to note that "you boys are gonna get creamed."
And the haka? Screw the haka. David Campese had the best approach to this piece of over-hyped, over-precious, over-marketed, pre-match nonsense. The Australian used to blithely ignore it and wander around the back pitch limbering up and stretching his calves -- the perfect response.
Such a reaction these days would provoke outrage, you are supposed to respect the Maori traditions, etc, etc. But why is one side allowed such a blatant psychological advantage, while their opponents are ordered to stand there meekly looking on?
The Maoris do have a proud culture, but one that is frequently manipulated. It seems that every New Zealander is eligible for the Maoris side under the granny rule when you consider that Cardiff second-row Paul Tito (a man with hair redder than Mick Hucknall) is a former team member.
The days of 'looking for the blonde fellah' are gone and, for all their injury woes, there is quality and experience and proven winning ability in this Irish squad. They should get on the plane tomorrow with a sense of belief that they can end this 105-year wait.
The Oirish are coming? To be sure they are.