'I get so annoyed when people say we ran All Blacks close' - Jamie Heaslip says Ireland have unfinished business
After a decade in the Ireland trenches, Jamie Heaslip has an All Black itch he needs to scratch
Jamie Heaslip retreats with surprise when reminded that the 10th anniversary of his first Ireland cap is fast approaching. It was November 26, 2006, when he, Stephen Ferris and a teenage Luke Fitzgerald were introduced to international rugby by Eddie O'Sullivan, as Ireland ran out handy winners against the Pacific Islands in the final game at the old Lansdowne Road.
Injuries have forced Ferris and Fitzgerald to retire, but Heaslip is seemingly impervious to the shuddering physicality of the modern game. By his own admission, the 32-year-old is not one for reflection. He has an impulse to look forward.
"People give out to me for not taking stock of where I am and what I've done, because I'm always about getting on to the next thing, the next challenge," Heaslip explains.
"Stuff like that does stop me in my tracks, because that's great. I'm on 93 international caps (five with the Lions), but I remember hitting 50 and thinking 'that's class', and then thinking 'how do I get to the next 50?'
"It's great, but there's a lot on that list I still want to tick off, and New Zealand is one of them."
Ah yes, the All Blacks, Ireland's very own white whale. Next Saturday, Ireland take on the back-to-back world champions at Soldier Field, home of the NFL's Chicago Bears. A fortnight later, following a rather less daunting meeting with Canada, New Zealand will arrive at the Aviva Stadium to renew hostilities.
Steve Hansen's side recently regained the Rugby Championship at a canter, racking up a record 18th consecutive victory against top-tier nations.
Dan Carter in action against Ireland
Any speculation that New Zealand would endure a period of transition following the post-World Cup retirements of such luminaries as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu and Keven Mealamu has been extinguished over the past two months. Their conveyor belt of talent has just churned out replacements to sustain their unprecedented dominance.
Heaslip has faced the All Blacks on seven occasions - seven defeats, some ignominious. The worst came in June 2010 at the Yarrow Stadium, in New Plymouth. He was sent off after 15 minutes for kneeing McCaw in the head, and the All Blacks went on to win 66-28.
At the time, Heaslip described the hysteria surrounding his dismissal, particularly from the New Zealand press, as like a "murder trial". Six years on, the No 8 accepts that the reaction was a manifestation of the unbridled obsession and collective sense of self the All Blacks induce in their homeland.
"It can be intense when you go down there, if you haven't experienced it before. But, at the same time, it's really exciting because there's a whole wave of anticipation that goes with playing against New Zealand," he says.
"They are very proud of that history and heritage they have in the sport, and the identity that they have as a nation. The All Blacks is more than just a rugby team worldwide - it's New Zealand.
"That's what I think it does for that country. It's a country of a similar population (to Ireland), but obviously a lot more of them play it. They're really proud of it, and it's the top dog over there. It's all over the TV, it's all over the press - they literally have rugby on 24/7."
On the two most recent occasions that Heaslip has come up against the All Blacks, Ireland have pushed them to their considerable limits. In June 2012, a last-minute Carter drop-goal denied Ireland a famous draw in Christchurch, but the following week - which Heaslip missed due to a broken finger - the All Blacks romped to a 60-0 drubbing that irreparably damaged Declan Kidney's tenure.
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt
Then, of course, there was that unforgettable afternoon at the Aviva Stadium three years ago, at the start of Joe Schmidt's reign. A routine win over Samoa preceded a deflating loss to Australia, during which Ireland were accommodating, close to the point of surrender. Their response was to over-run the All Blacks the following week in a 40-minute blitz that yielded a 22-7 half-time lead. Ireland failed to register a single point after the break, however, and the visitors clawed their way back into contention before Ryan Crotty's late try deprived the hosts of that elusive first ever win over New Zealand.
Ireland had showcased the nascent blueprint on which consecutive Six Nations titles were based, but Heaslip still finds little consolation, having let such a rare opportunity slip away. The lingering pain now fuels an acute desire to make amends in the coming weeks.
"With 2013, people go 'ah, fair play to you, you ran them close'," he says. "I get so annoyed with that, because we still lost. We threw away a lead in that last 10 minutes, so it's pretty annoying. But there was a lot of learning from it.
"A lot of guys who played in that game will remember it, and what it took to get to the position we were in, and then what happened when it went the way it did for them. We're going to have to remember that, because they're even better than they were before.
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"It's weird, because games just give you experience in the moment, whether it be consciously or subconsciously. They ingrain themselves in you, whether you acknowledge it or not. But on the day, it's literally winner takes all. It's just 80 minutes of rugby on that day - let's go. All form beforehand, in my opinion, doesn't matter. It's the prep that week and then what happens on the day."
For Ireland, focusing on the immediate when considering the All Blacks is prudent, because the historical evidence does not make for happy reading. Since November 1905, the nations have crossed paths on 28 occasions and, all but once - when Ireland managed a 10-10 in January 1973 - New Zealand have emerged victorious.
There is recent precedent for Ireland making history against Southern Hemisphere opposition - in June, they won a first ever Test on South African soil, before losing the series 2-1.
Heaslip fully recognises that to break the All Black hoodoo, Ireland must operate at as close to perfection as humanly possible. He believes it can be done, and the prospect of ticking New Zealand off his career bucket list is a major motivator.
"They can't get anything up on you in any part of the game, and then it's about bringing it all together for 80 minutes when you're absolutely wrecked," he says.
"Like any team, they're just 15 guys on a field, so they will make mistakes. There will be chinks in the armour of the methods they use to defend, or the way they play, so it's about trying to illuminate them a little bit.
"It's never been done before, and I like doing things that have never been done."
Sunday Indo Sport