To the best of our knowledge, there is no 30-year reunion planned for the Boys of ’92. They flew out of Dublin in late May that year, just as one of the biggest news stories in Irish history was breaking — Bishop Eamonn Casey and his extra curricular activity — and it followed them to New Zealand. On the second game of a harrowing but instructive trip, a banner was unfurled in the crowd at Lancaster Park, then home of Canterbury: ‘The Bishop didn’t do it.’ Oh, he did it all right. But on a different pitch the rugby boys would get very little done.
A year earlier there had been a portent of sorts when Ciarán Fitzgerald’s squad prepared for the second World Cup with a four-match tour of Namibia. If some of us had to look at the map to get a rough handle on the schlepp from Dublin to London to Johannesburg to Windhoek, then more of us had to pull out a copy of Encyclopedia Britannica to learn something of a place probably better known in its previous incarnation of South West Africa.
As for their rugby pedigree? Nah. Of course they would be big and brawny but this was three months out from a World Cup and these fellas weren’t even on the standby list of invitees.
Namibia however, in their own high altitude, rock hard, back yard, were not bad. Ireland, poorly prepared as ever, lost both Tests. So if they were firing blanks against satellite states in the summer of ’91, what would happen against the world champions a year later?
Swap summer for winter and the high veldt for cold, wet fields and you had rugby taught differently — but it was schooling nonetheless.
There was so much to admire. With the Kiwis there were three broad planks to their raft: very good skills learned over a lifetime; physical conditioning that was way ahead of Ireland’s amateurs; and a withering lack of respect for those who couldn’t keep up. Coming home from that trip it was hard to conceive of a time the All Blacks would ever break sweat over an incoming Ireland tour.
They had been so horizontal about this one they didn’t bother with a welcoming party when the Ireland squad landed, after the misery of 24 plus hours via long haul economy. Never mind the scarcity of any Maori mob from central casting throwing down feathers in challenge before a nice rub of noses, there wasn’t even a Kiwi blazer on hand to press some flesh. That diplomatic snub was a neon lit indicator of what was to come.
By way of added intrigue there was a noticeable gully running down the middle of the travelling press corps. We were joined later by a few UK colleagues for the Test series, one of whom described the divide among the Irish hacks as “Serbo-Croat”.
In the fallout from the 1991 World Cup, which uniquely featured a stand-off between increasingly militant Irish players and the IRFU over image rights, there was a more critical wing developing in the media on how the union were running the game and preparing the national side. This was separate from the larger conservative branch who were happy enough with the status quo.
A card carrying member of the changelings, we were asking would the squad not have been better off at home, getting fit and figuring out how to become competitive, rather than learning lessons that were already obvious and, critically, would not bring about a change in Irish behaviour.
In a way, for the IRFU, the tour was like one of those top-to-toe health checks most men undergo when they hit 50.
A friend made the following useful observation: “If you’re not prepared to make a lifestyle change, don’t bother dropping your drawers and bending over for the exam.”
Tour manager Noel Murphy fundamentally disagreed. “Anyone who says we shouldn’t be here is wrong,” he declared to us in the aftermath of the annihilation by Auckland in Eden Park, game four on the schedule.
All Black Gary Whetton, star second-row for Auckland that day in Eden Park, had a different take on proceedings. “Psychologically they must be feeling down,” he said after the 62-7 exhibition. “To be honest I’m a little disappointed in the Irish team, there’s no doubt about that. I thought they would have put up a bit more of a challenge, if you like.”
No, we didn’t like. We came from a part of the world driven by amateur ethos, used as a cover for dishonest preparation, and had no desire to be disrespected by these fellas whose own commitment to no-pay-for-play was, well, suspect.
The highlight of the tour was the scare Ireland gave New Zealand in the first Test, followed swiftly by a return to business as usual with a hammering in the second.
Wrapped up in it all was another humdinger where the tourists were hammered to the tune of 58 points by Manawatu, where one Joe Schmidt had yet to make his breakthrough. Their captain Stu ‘Bundy’ Cruden — Aaron’s old man — dipped into the Gary Whetton post-match playbook and expressed disappointment in the best Ireland had to offer. A nuggety, sinewy, hard-arsed flanker, Cruden looked thoroughly pissed off at being short-changed on the warm-up ahead of his team playing Samoa the next week.
So you can see why there is no reunion for the tourists. Lots of black humour, for sure, when they come across each other, but New Zealand is the last place in the rugby world you want to be if you’re not commanding respect.
You can see also why Andy Farrell is happy to position this summer’s tour as the start of Ireland’s World Cup. In nine episodes of that global get together no Tier 1 nation has ever had to face five back-to-back games of this quality.
Interest in New Zealand is well ahead of what will come later with their involvement in the Rugby Championship. Unlike Noel Murphy 30 years ago, whose head was melted on arrival, tour manager Mick Kearney will not have to ring a blazer in the NZRFU to get down to the airport with a céad míle fáilte or the tourists will be re-boarding the plane and going home.
New Zealand rugby fans are concerned about how their squad is shaping up. For the first time in history they are a bit jittery about men in green coming through arrivals.
When the locals sit down for a game of compare/contrast they will take comfort from the durability of the stellar second-row pairing, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. Maybe less so from the selection of Sam Cane as captain, which looks more like the old dog for the hard road than the top dog.
Of the new faces, chances are the most impressive will be Blues centre Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who, if he gets the nod for the first Test, will be starting outside his club outhalf Beauden Barrett, with Aaron Smith likely to hang on at scrumhalf if he can overcome injury.
Where Kiwi fans will be less than bullish is the match-up on front and back-rows, a difference that would be even more pronounced had Rónan Kelleher been fit to make the trip.
That injury has exposed Ireland’s depth issues at hooker. For Dave Heffernan, who has built a solid pro career from low enough expectations coming out of Blackrock, this tour is the crossroads. It’s five years since he won the first of his six caps, coming off the bench in New Jersey against the US Eagles. He will start against the Maoris, on Wednesday week, to kick off the tour. At 31 he’s no bolter, but a good tour would tee him up for a challenge to make the World Cup squad next year. In order to gazump Rob Herring, a very good tour.
It’s hard to put a price on the lift that would come from starting with a win in Hamilton. Three days later the Test series kicks off in Auckland, and if by some chance Ireland are undefeated as they gather up their stuff for the trek down to Dunedin, then any remaining tickets will be soaring in value.
The target for Ireland should be threefold: win a Test, at least one of the two Maori games, and be competitive when the tour comes to an exhausting close. There is no bonus in getting lost under a barrage of points in Wellington on the last night. Tick those boxes and you could start planning a reunion for the Boys of ’22.