Injuries to key men and dependence on Mike Ross give little grounds for optimism, writes Jim Glennon
The first Irish rugby team to visit New Zealand did so in 1976, at a time when when the old-fashioned and appropriately-titled tour by individual countries, as distinct from the combined Lions team, was a regular feature of the rugby season. Ireland had been to South Africa in 1961, Australia in 1967 and Argentina in 1970, and were due to travel again to both Australia (1979) and South Africa (1981).
In preparation for the 1976 tour to New Zealand, the IRFU interviewed a number of candidates for the then relatively new role of coach (the first official Irish coach, Ronnie Dawson, had been appointed six years previously in 1970). Among those interviewed was the Connacht coach of the time who, when asked why he felt he should be appointed, replied to the effect that having coached his province for a number of years, during which time they had failed to win a single game (17 defeats in succession over a four-year period, if my memory serves me correctly) he had no doubt that he was, by some distance, the best-qualified man for the position as there was simply no chance of Ireland winning a game in New Zealand.
In those simpler times, the tour was over a four-week period, with eight games, six of which were against New Zealand provinces, a one-off Test against the All Blacks, and a non-Test game against Fiji in Suva. Inclusion in the travelling party was something to which every serious rugby player in the country aspired, and around which those in contention would have constructed their entire season. Simpler times indeed.
On Wednesday morning last, the current Irish squad left London for New Zealand for their forthcoming three-Test series against the world champions starting next Saturday and continuing over the following two Saturdays. The backbone of the group is made up of Leinster players who had such a disappointing end to their season against the Ospreys a couple of days earlier. Some of the others played a so-called warm-up game against the Barbarians in Gloucester the previous night, although it's difficult to see the advantages of such a game, other than for the finances.
There were a number of injury-enforced absentees too, most notably Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe. All in all, it was a somewhat weather-beaten group that boarded the aircraft for their flight to the land of the long white cloud.
It's often said that Declan Kidney is a master of the mind games that are intrinsic to top-level sport; if that is in fact the case, now is when he must step up to the plate -- his mastery of the dark arts has never been in greater demand. His team is the first to take on the world champions since they regained the title, they've to do so three times in 15 days in their own backyard, and all against the backdrop of Ireland never having beaten New Zealand.
Not only that, but his team's most recent competitive outing was a thrashing at the hands of England in Twickenham in March, when they were physically blown away by an opposition which wouldn't be seen to be in the same class, or nearly as physical, as these opponents. Fundamental to the St Patrick's Day smashing was the devastation wrought on the Irish scrum when Mike Ross was forced to retire injured, and concerns over his current state of fitness to start are undoubtedly uppermost in Irish minds.
He faces an uphill battle to be ready for the first Test, and if and when he does feature on the tour, he'll be the primary target for attention and it will simply be a question of whether he can hold the scrum up. Frankly, and without the immense scrummaging power of O'Connell in the second-row, it will be a feat of gargantuan proportions if he does. Regrettably, too, he is some distance ahead of the alternatives. All are utterly unproven at anything approaching the level of the challenge facing them. So occupied will the tighthead be with surviving at scrumtime, any contribution made elsewhere will be a big bonus; it will be the equivalent of taking on the hosts with a man in the sin-bin for the entire game.
To undertake such a task without O'Connell and Ferris will place phenomenal demands on Seán O'Brien, Cian Healy, Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip, who has a New Zealand ghost or two of his own to banish from his past.
Ireland's prospects are so grim that the hopelessness may well be turned to our advantage -- nobody gives us a chance and this is where the man-management skills of the coach, and of the senior players too, come into play. A half-decent and injury-free performance in the first game next week could breathe enough oxygen into the undertaking to sustain it right up to the second game. Keeping the ship afloat will be the sole objective after that.
That long white cloud has had a mesmerising effect on almost all rugby teams visiting from these islands for well over a century now -- the immortal 1971 Lions were the only side to adequately cope with it.
As it happened, that 1976 Irish tour was looked on subsequently as a reasonably successful one, winning five of their eight games but, and it was the defining yardstick, losing to New Zealand (11-3). Thirty-five years on, they remain the ultimate yardstick, particularly on their own soil.
Kidney said last week that 'this is the best type of tour to go on -- to find out exactly where you are'. Let's hope that the realisation is not a rude one and that somewhere among the travelling party are a few hitherto undiscovered gems -- there'd be no better time to present themselves.
Sunday Indo Sport