Wednesday 21 February 2018

‘We certainly don’t want to be the first team to lose to Ireland’

Rival skippers try to play down relevance of history

Rory Best breaks through the tackles of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick, left, and Steven Luatua during the 2013 Test. Photo: Sportsfile
Rory Best breaks through the tackles of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick, left, and Steven Luatua during the 2013 Test. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Can Ireland be regarded a serious force in rugby if they've never beaten the best? Why, in 27 of the 28 meetings between the sides, have the All Blacks come out on the right side of the result?

A 1973 draw aside, this has been a one-way relationship.

Best says there’s nothing to be gained by Ireland from looking back at that near-miss. Photo: Sportsfile
Best says there’s nothing to be gained by Ireland from looking back at that near-miss. Photo: Sportsfile

So, it is no surprise that, while Steve Hansen and his players are taking Joe Schmidt's side seriously, the rest of New Zealand have little regard for Ireland.

On Monday, flanker Ardie Savea struggled to name an Irish player he recognised from growing up, while a New Zealand journalist called Jack McGrath Rory Best at Ireland's team announcement on Thursday.

Until they finally get over the line, the Six Nations side won't earn that respect. Over the past decade and a half, they have achieved almost everything in the game but this remains, as Jamie Heaslip put it last month, the last great unchecked box.

For most of the 111 years the countries have been playing, New Zealand have been the world's best team of course and that's the simple answer behind the question of why they have never tasted defeat in this fixture.

In their last three games, though, Ireland have been close twice. They were denied at the death by a Dan Carter drop-goal in Christchurch in 2012, while Ryan Crotty's try and Aaron Cruden's conversion at the Aviva Stadium a year later is still a fresh wound.

In between those close calls, Ireland lost 60-0 in Hamilton - the worst defeat in their history.

As Brian O'Driscoll explained on Newstalk last week, Cruden's kick didn't matter much in 2013. A draw would have meant little to a player who accomplished much, but never got to tick the box .

It hasn't escaped Rory Best that he could be the first captain to lead Ireland to victory in this fixture.

"I've played in a lot of very good Irish teams and it seems very strange that Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks, for whatever reason. We've come close a number of times but it's strange," the Ireland captain said.

"We would see ourselves as a top-tier nation, one of the better sides in the world and we've shown it, it's almost like we've shown it against everyone except the All Blacks.

"It's disappointing we never have. There's reasons for that and I think there are times that we've played in games and you look back and go 'how can you beat New Zealand?'

"I've played in games where we've gifted them 20 points in the first 20 minutes and against anyone you're going to struggle to come back from that. Against one of the best teams in the world you're never coming back.

"The big thing for us is to make sure we get our stuff right.

"History is history and we can't affect that. All we can affect is what happens on Saturday, how we prepare. We need to make sure that we don't look back at video clips form 2013 or even the (60-0) game in Hamilton before that and go 'how did we let that happen?'

"We control now what happens on Saturday, every minute from 3pm onwards.

"That's all we can look at. It's disappointing Ireland have never beaten New Zealand but we have a chance on Saturday to change that."

For former New Zealand captain Richie McCaw, who made his debut against Ireland and played against them 14 times, the one-sided nature of the relationship is a curious one.

"You'd almost be better to ask the Irish guys if it's a psychological team, it doesn't feel like that," he said.

"That last match is the freshest in my memory, it was as tough as they come. It really was. I look back to the three-Test series in 2012, jeepers that second Test could have gone the other way. There's not much in it.

"It's like any other big match you play: you've got to prepare well and to be honest over the years there were games where perhaps the scoreboard got away, but they're not all like that and there are ones that have been tight."

McCaw said he never brought the record up when addressing his team, but concedes that he was conscious of it all the same.

"From a personal point of view I knew it and you don't want to be the first team that loses," he said.

"I don't think it motivates you as such. You know that's the case. But you're in danger if you use that as a motivator; the motivator is turning up to perform and if you start worrying about those other things I don't think it's helpful.

"I'm pretty sure most of the guys in the back of their minds know, they just don't like to talk about it."

McCaw's successor Kieran Read is following a similar path.

"It's a fact, we certainly don't want to be that team that loses the first one to Ireland," he said at an event to mark the All Blacks new sponsorship deal with AIG.

"It's not going to factor in from here on in, but it's been spoken about and guys understand that, but that's not going to be the thing that decides the game so for us there's no point talking about it too much."

Closest

The closest Ireland came was in 1973 when Tom Grace's try set up Barry McGann's conversion to win it, but the effort from the touchline went wide. The captain that day? Tom Kiernan would have earned a place in Irish history. That's on offer to Best today.

"Of course it crosses your mind," he said. "You know, I've grown up playing rugby since I was no age, it's been rugby and farming.

"I've been to All Blacks games as a spectator since I was young and it does cross your mind very briefly that you could be the first one to captain the side that goes down in history, but that's the same for everyone.

"Even being the first captain to lead a team to win in South Africa, it won't really be until you've retired and you look back on some of your best memories that that will come.

"There are small moments when you think, 'Wouldn't it be great to have that on your CV', but you've got to keep coming back to the process. It would be a really special and monumental thing for me to captain that team, but there are so many nuts and bolts involved that if I started thinking about myself only, then we'll fall short.

"And given the quality New Zealand have, we'd probably fall short by quite a margin."

Irish Independent

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