Sport Rugby

Thursday 22 February 2018

Ireland can put positive slant on a hellish tour

Southern hemisphere scalp may be just around corner, writes Brendan Fanning

In the space of 15 months between summer 2002 and autumn 2003, we had two of those troubling episodes where your gut was sending you a clear message that your head was trying to spin into something else.

The first was in Carisbrook, Dunedin. Ireland had managed to lose the first Test to the All Blacks largely because Ronan O'Gara was having one of those rare experiences when he couldn't kick the ball -- which had been nicknamed the flying pig -- over the bar. Afterwards, as we waited in the tunnel, Keith Wood could be clearly heard in the changing room telling his team-mates, in colourful language, that in New Zealand the only way they would respect you was if you beat them. So that's what they needed to do the next week in Auckland. Ireland were thumped.

The following autumn we were across the Tasman, in Melbourne, and Ireland had played most of the rugby in their pool game with Australia. And lost. Immediately afterwards we came across Tim Horan, emerging -- or rather skipping happily -- from one of the broadcasting boxes beside our position. He looked like a defendant who had gone to court expecting a custodial and walked away a free man.

More of the same in Rotorua two nights ago. On our way out into the cold and empty night a New Zealand colleague concluded: "Aw, that was there for the taking!" And if a sharp implement had been to hand perhaps we would indeed have taken something from the scene.

This was slightly different however. A few hours earlier, looking at the 14 points spread and thinking the bookies had got it wrong, we wondered was it rational at all to be getting wound up about whether or not a mix of our second and, mostly, third-string players could cope with the Maori, who have a tradition of beating touring teams. The reason it had such importance was because another shellacking, six days after the avalanche in New Plymouth, would render the last leg in Brisbane a hellish experience.

Mercifully, we have been spared that. Certainly it was painful to watch an Ireland side recover to the point where they could score six times uninterrupted and still lose the game. But Eoin Reddan subsequently made a useful point when he said that at the team announcement on Tuesday there will be a mix of those who are delighted to be in the side to face Australia, and those who are peeved at having been left out.

Of course, there will be a few who won't be in either camp, but as the Maori ran through Ireland in the opening quarter, Tuesday's team announcement looked like it could be done by text.

"If we can sort our discipline and maybe our defence, we can put Australia under pressure," he said. "And win. A win down in the southern hemisphere. You never know when the chance is there. We used to always say about the English that they might be confident and cocky but, because of that, the time the opportunity came they were always able to take it, even though they might look like fools for five or six years. And everyone might knock them for being like that. But when they get there -- because they're so like that -- they win it.

"So we need to be confident going into next week. If we get a good start and put Australia under pressure? I think tonight will enhance our confidence. I think it will re-emphasise the few points of composure under pressure -- 18-3 down away in New Zealand is serious pressure. You're looking down the barrel of a gun and to turn that round, bit by bit by bit. It wasn't a miracle turnaround. It was solid. It wasn't an intercept or anything like that. That will re-emphasise the points about composure and backing ourselves and trusting ourselves."

Significantly, every player -- with the exception of Shane Horgan, who looked concussed from a mistimed tackle in the first couple of minutes -- benefitted from the experience. For the first time since returning from illness, Marcus Horan looked like he was enjoying his rugby. And for what felt like the first time in an age, Paddy Wallace came through a top-class game having played well without being battered to a pulp. The flankers, Niall Ronan and Rhys Ruddock, came to make statements about their worth at this level, both coming from utterly different backgrounds yet both successful. In the circumstances, young Ruddock was amazing.

Ed O'Donoghue was different again. He has come up through the Australian system without ever causing too much excitement about his potential. This was natural enough given that he didn't really think that highly of himself. On the way up, he got as far as the Australia U20 squad but wasn't stunned by the news that they wouldn't be taking him to the World Cup at that age grade.

It was around then that he started working a bit harder, and realised his goal to make the Queensland Reds, which for a Brisbane boy was a coming of age. Along the way, he actually played a few months in Buccaneers when visiting relatives in Cork, and it was from Queensland that Ulster picked him up two seasons ago. He arrives in Leinster this summer, a move he's making explicitly to enhance his chances of playing for Ireland.

"If you're brought up in a country and one of your parents is from another country you nearly feel as much pride for that country, just because of the way you've been brought up," he says. "My dad is the only one of his family in Australia. He's very proud of Australia, but throughout my life I wouldn't have been able to go a day without a story about something going on in North Cork. The most obscure stories that wouldn't have anything to do with what we were talking about.

"I'm very wary of it (wanting to play for Ireland) because I don't want to push myself on people. But it's inbuilt through dad. He's a proud bloke anyway but he'd be delighted. It's great the way it's worked out on this tour. I wouldn't have wanted to leave it any later to start working with all the rest of the boys."

O'Donoghue did himself no harm in Rotorua on Friday, a place he remembers coming to initially with his school's first XV and promptly being hammered by the locals' third-choice team. Mick O'Driscoll will probably be fit again this week but O'Donoghue has closed the gap between himself and Dan Tuohy.

Tuohy might yet make it at six as Kidney won't push Ruddock so far so soon, and there is still a debate there as to who will make up that back row. It wouldn't do much for Ireland's defensive line-out to run with Shane Jennings, David Wallace and Niall Ronan, but the advantages would be worth the trip. And O'Donoghue, too, is worth a place in the squad.

"It'll be weird for me going back to Brisbane," he says. "Isaac Boss is a great mate of mine and he was telling me that his first Test for Ireland was in Hamilton, on his own Waikato pitch. And he said it was quite odd but that it made it that much more special. I'm not holding my breath but it would be great to get a run. Whatever's needed of me I'm keen."

It seems that enthusiasm won't be confined to O'Donoghue, which is a relief. Declan Kidney was unusually animated in the pre-match warm-up in Rotorua (not as much as the Maori medic who joined in the Haka), which told you something of the importance of the game not going south on him. Then, in the first quarter, that express journey started before gradually Jonny Sexton began diverting it.

So the coach was a mix of emotions afterwards: relieved that the tour is still a useful exercise, but frustrated that the flight to Brisbane yesterday was made against a backdrop of 0-2 instead if 1-1. A bit like his experiences with Munster in France, Kidney knows that the more you travel to take on better teams, the closer you get to beating them. That's unlikely to happen on this trip, but at least this week will be a positive exercise in itself, with an equally positive spin-off for those who are here only because of the number of first-choice players unavailable.

It was still warm when the Ireland squad arrived in Queensland yesterday afternoon. They will have perfect working conditions before making their debut in Suncorp Stadium on Saturday. At 50,000 capacity it's relatively small, but it doesn't feel like that when there is something to shout about. On this tour of mixed messages we are still interested in the final instalment.

Sunday Independent

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