Monday 11 December 2017

Comment: It wasn't a tournament fixture - but it's nonsense to say that Ireland v All Blacks was just a 'friendly'

Munster and Ireland players Billy Holland, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and CJ Stander celebrate winning with physio Dave Revins. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Munster and Ireland players Billy Holland, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and CJ Stander celebrate winning with physio Dave Revins. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

It didn't take long - maybe 24 hours or so - for a certain section of Irish sports fans to have a predictable reaction to one of our country's greatest on-field achievements.

It would have been overly churlish to pipe up any sooner, with so many people revelling in Ireland's amazing victory over the All Blacks that had everything - excellent tries, the end of a 111-year drought, huge physicality - except for an easily accessible TV channel.

Read more: After finally beating the All Blacks, Ireland are poised to equal one of rugby's most historic achievements

But while for the majority of people, Saturday's 40-29 win over the mighty New Zealand - owners of an unprecedented win streak unceremoniously snapped by Joe Schmidt's men - caused nothing but the unfettered joy reserved for the greatest Irish sporting triumphs, a small sub-set of supporters had a far more muted reaction.

'Why are you all celebrating so much? It was only a friendly'.

If you haven't heard such an utterance, then lucky you - your group of friends and family obviously take a more measured view of sporting history than others.

True, last Saturday's clash between the All Blacks and Ireland wasn't a part of a World Cup or any other tournament. Technically, there weren't any 'points' at stake and the money-spinning decision to play the fixture in Chicago might not have been to everyone's liking.

But to sneer at people for placing the victory on par with some of Ireland's greatest achievements because the game was a 'friendly' is plain wrong.

Equating last Saturday's test match with a soccer friendly makes little sense - they aren't remotely the same thing.

The history of rugby is built around test matches. The World Cup only started in 1987. Before that the only opportunity for the northern teams to play their southern counterparts were in infrequently scheduled test matches or on a Lions tour.

These one-off fixtures or three-test series' became huge events - the only chance players from this part of the world had to test themselves against the very best.

A top class Irish international might have only got one chance to play New Zealand, Australia or South Africa in a career - it most certainly meant more to those involved than a mere 'friendly'.

Admittedly, the phrase 'test rugby' is an up market way of branding the matches, but at the same time, it deserves a different title because the fixtures aren't just warm-up games designed to fill time.

Sure, they rake in big money for the countries involved, but they are circled on the calendar by fans and players alike, rather than in football where everyone sleepwalks through international weeks as they wait for the Premier League to return.

And to those who deride Saturday's achievement because there were no points at stake - the world ranking points picked up by Ireland could be crucial in securing the team a top seed at the World Cup when the draw is made after the Six Nations.

So here's why people are celebrating a 'friendly' win so much:

  • Ireland had never beaten New Zealand in 111 years worth of clashes between the two.
  • The All Blacks had won 18 games in-a-row, the longest streak in test rugby history - Ireland arguably beat the best international side of all-time.
  • The world ranking points picked up could give Ireland a great 2019 World Cup draw - the win could easily be a springboard to Ireland achieving the only thing missing from their rugby CV: a World Cup semi-final.
  • It wasn't just a friendly - rugby history and tradition places a huge emphasis on cross-hemisphere test matches.

Does beating the All Blacks trump winning a Grand Slam or a Six Nations title? No.

But that isn't the only criteria for measuring sporting success. If only sillverware counted then Irish fans would be robbed of countless special memories.

This isn't about point-scoring between fans of rival sports. It is about - as John Giles might say - celebrating each achievement on its merits.

And Ireland's win over the All Blacks has a hell of a lot going for it.

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