Ultimate test never fails to get Irish hearts beating
A history of defeat can't diminish aura of playing All Blacks, says Brendan Fanning
'It's boring but for us this game is just the next one, nothing more.'
New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster
For everyone who plays New Zealand, it is never just another game. Five years ago, on a freezing November night, Munster played the All Blacks in a match so laden with emotion it should have been suffocating. Yet it was the opposite.
"We were in a position where we would have been absolutely hosed if we didn't front," Denis Leamy recalls.
By then the subtext had taken over the story. It was the 30th anniversary of Munster's win over the All Blacks in Thomond Park. It was the official opening of the redeveloped stadium. In a nice twist, the new Munster would have three Kiwis of their own to take the fight to the opposition, and another on the bench for back-up.
Uniquely, the players were joined for the pre-match meal by the 1978 team. Leamy really enjoyed sitting with Donal Spring, comparing notes. Donnacha Ryan was alongside Brendan Foley and found it all a remarkably relaxing experience. Moss Keane sat with Mick O'Driscoll and kept everyone laughing at Moss laughing at Micko. "You're going for a nap?" Keane asked O'Driscoll at the end of the meal. "Sure the kickoff is in a few hours!"
By the time they got up from the table, the professionals reckoned they had learned something from the amateurs.
"I suppose at the back of our mind was the idea that this was doable: there was a Munster team that went out and took on these guys and beat them up and won the game," says Leamy. "That was something that we were well aware of: it was possible to beat the All Blacks."
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'We probably had four world-class players, and that's not to diminish other lads: Dougie (Howlett), Rua (Tipoki), (Paul) Warwick and Strings. Other than that we were ordinary lads. But they're the games when ordinary lads can do extraordinary things.'
And it would need something extraordinary for nine of the first-choice team were tied up with Ireland who would play New Zealand on the Saturday. In 1978, rugby was a dirtier and slower sport, and a manic approach gave you a decent chance of upsetting the odds, especially on a foul day. The modern game is a different beast, harder to slow down and control, and, monitored from every angle, it's not easy to stay onside. Donnacha Ryan though was happy to try.
"Rua brought us all into the changing room the night before and basically we all bound up and the four boys did the Haka for us. He explained the meaning and the history and we brought our culture and theirs together that night. It came in a wave after that.
"I hadn't trained I'd say up until three days beforehand and I was pure fearful that I might never play against an international team, let alone the All Blacks.
"We actually had an internal match a week before that and there was a load of fights in it. Anyone within half a shout was going for it because all the internationals were away. It was a case of last man standing and it would bring you back to those days when in a trial match you'd try and do a fella to get in. I was lucky I was injured and didn't play in it.
"That night going to the ground – even the scene: it was one of those really dark, cold evenings and I suppose when you can feel the cold in at your bones you know it's going to be a good night in Thomond. It was magnificent.
"I remember small, weird things, like Micko asking me to tape up the top of his ears. Like, he'd never ask me to do that – he'd normally get someone else to do it. We didn't say that much in the changing rooms beforehand. Every word had a load of meat behind it, which was significant I suppose.
"It really dawned on me when I came out on the pitch. It was like grabbing an electric fence. And hanging on to it for 80 minutes. That was exactly what it was. It was like – you hear a good song on the stereo and you turn it up to the max. I remember seeing faces, things I wouldn't normally notice. GAA people from Nenagh. 'What the feckin hell is he doing here like?' Do you remember him giving out to me for going playing rugby?'
"The pure bloody absolute outpour of emotion was fantastic. Obviously the boys were going to do the Haka, and to be honest I'm pure awkward at the best of times with that sort of stuff. The crowd just erupted behind us when the four boys stepped out. Talking to them afterwards they said they couldn't hear each other it was so loud. It was such an emotional thing for them, especially for Rua who was driving the thing on. I'd never stepped up in front of a Haka before and you hear all these stories about how intimidating it is but for some reason all I kept saying to myself was: 'They sweat, they bleed'.
"I was 25 at the time, a bit of a juvenile mentality but basically I was saying to myself: if I do any thing tonight I'm going to hurt my opposite number. One man is all I have to concentrate on. It's like a boxing ring I imagine: if I just go hammer and tongs at my man and I beat him, I know I've done my job.
"Everyone said to me: 'Jesus you looked nuts in that Haka', but there was only one person I was looking at and that was my opposite number Jason Eaton. The whole way through it.
"I can't remember that much in the game. A couple of things. Obviously a bit of a melee broke out and I punched Jason in the face. I don't even remember that – I just remember laughing afterwards. It was the most ridiculous thing to do. Romain Poite definitely saw it and for the sake of the night that was in it he said nothing.
"I remember just before the try – a funny story from a heated game. Niall Ronan kicked it on and they brought it over the line and we had a five-metre scrum. I remember racing up to it and I was behind Timmy Ryan that night and it was his first start for Munster at tight head. Timmy was my first second row partner with Munster Youths and I'd been great friends with him the whole way up.
"Obviously I'd never met that many rugby people coming from GAA and I'd be quiet enough to a certain extent until I met Timmy and I realised this is how rugby players must be supposed to act – it was very aggressive all the time.
"Timmy came in like a big bullet into the huddle. 'Right lads, we're going to go over these fuckers'. Bananas like.
"Then Frankie Sheahan goes: 'No, stop, wait – listen to me. First we're going to take the hit (like let them hit hard at us) and then we're going to go for it'. Right. And I'm behind Timmy, and Frankie turns to him and says, 'And then I'm going to make you famous!'
"We took the hit and nailed the scrum. Timmy went up like a bullet on the tighthead side and basically we went down the short side and Barry (Murphy) scored in the corner. We all went bananas but the three in the front row didn't care – 'that was the scrum, that was it!'
"The electricity just shot up again after that. How the fecking hell can I stay in this game? How can I sustain it? Fitness scores, strength scores, nothing mattered. It was just absolute, pure electricity off one another. Different personalities but we were all on the same page that night.
"We missed 38-42 tackles. Billy Holland coming on. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff. Normally if you miss tackles we'd be on each other's cases but it didn't matter if you missed tackles, what mattered was we got each other's backs that night. We're all in it together kind of stuff.
"Afterwards we were all in a heap. It was definitely a game where the stage was set for you. Every man in Ireland I'd say was so jealous of the 15 lads who were suiting up. When you were a kid looking at Italia '90 or America '94 and thinking that you'd be the fella to go up at the last minute and score the goal – it was that kind of stuff. You've 80 minutes here and the mentality I had was that I don't care if I kill myself. This is what my life has been working towards. Playing against the best in the world. Pity – it wasn't meant to be."
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'The pressure comes on and it doesn't matter who you are, the demons will come in to your head and you've more chance of making poor decisions.'
Nick Evans, former All Black
By the time the worst decisions were being made, Nick Evans was on the bench with a torn hamstring. It would be his last game for the All Blacks. He didn't think the farewell would come for another fortnight for World Cup quarter-finals were only truck stops for New Zealand en route to their destination: the last four. This was Cardiff though, October 2007, and a wild night with the roof closed.
Evans came on for the injured Dan Carter on 54 minutes just after Thierry Dusatoir had squared a game that a while earlier New Zealand had led 13-0. Not good. The All Blacks worked their way back into the lead with a try from Rodney So'oialo to go 18-13 ahead. Then France scored again to go 20-18. Men in black were getting edgy. Edginess turned to panic when Evans went off, hamstrung. Luke McAlister became their third man at 10 that night. It all fell apart.
"We are human. I think most times when New Zealand fail they kind of beat themselves. What I mean by that is one of the faults of the All Blacks is not that they are complacent, because they always respect the opposition and it will be the same with Ireland on Sunday, but sometimes they are guilty of just turning up and thinking the performance will happen and things will develop themselves.
"I think the perfect example of that was 2007 when arguably we had one of the best teams in the last 10 years of the All Blacks but the preparation wasn't right and we turned up to that quarter-final just relying on who we were and thinking: 'The preparation wasn't quite right but we'll be alright. We won't need to change much or fine-tune things because of the players that we have'.
"What I've seen from this group of All Blacks is that they do have the utmost respect for their opponents and you saw that at the weekend against England: if you don't turn up then when a team is on its 'A' game, as England were then, they can nearly turn you over. And one guy who Ireland have who won't give a crap about history is Joe Schmidt. He hasn't been here before so it won't mean anything to him. Why should it?
"It sounds simple: you've got to be at your best to beat them. You have to prepare well; you have to have guys who are on top of their game; collectively as a unit you've got to stay tight because many times during the game you'll be under the cosh and it will come down to things like try-saving tackles, guys staying within the system and not having that fear to play.
"I know Ireland may have some fear because of the history but you've got to try and play the game. Although England got back into the game last weekend by kicking goals, you've got to score tries. And New Zealand will score three or four. So you've got to stop them and score three or four yourself.
"In the past some teams have been successful against the All Blacks by throwing something at them that they're not quite ready for, to take them out of their comfort zone.
"Last week England put about 10 guys into their lineout on only the second throw. If Ireland were to do that in the first lineout all of a sudden alarm bells would be going off. Well what's going on here?
"They'll have been in a comfort zone of defensive structures all week on what Ireland are going to do. So change guys around. Put a back row at first five, something to change things because once they're in their system and in the zone they're very hard to break down. They are very good, they're very physical, they're very confrontational – they almost go on autopilot and all of a sudden they get turnovers on you and they're the best unstructured attacking team in the world. Any poor kicks, any turnovers and they sting you.
"I'm not talking about coming out with a million different plays and confusing yourself, but if I was in the Ireland camp I'd have one or two plays that you've been doing during the week but are different, and then the first scrum, the first lineout, you have them going: 'Oh shit, what's the next one going to be? Do I need to be worrying about something else?'
"That way they're not thinking about their own structures. And it's all about having a go. You've got to. There's no point in shutting up shop for 80 minutes because they'll eventually break you down.
"If you take them to the 70th or 80th minute then yes they'll get nervous. Any team in the world in that position will have little demons coming into the back of their heads."
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'We all know that we have it in us as a team to beat them, but we really, really have to be at our best.'
Rob Kearney says the best thing his younger brother has going for him is that he won't play the game over and over in his head and then turn up a nervous wreck. In these circumstances it's hard to imagine a better way to be than calm before the storm.
Dave has been blessed to have his older brother around to show him the ropes. It started in boarding school and continued into Leinster where Joe Schmidt took his time about giving the younger brother a start. "Joe's first impressions of me probably weren't the best," he says. "I had a couple of poor games and hadn't played in a while. It got to the point after four months in I was probably thinking of going elsewhere and getting some game time."
When the chance came, against Dragons in 2010, Rob was on hand to help him through. And when Dave was called into the Ireland squad against Wales, in February 2012, it was his older brother who filled the long gap between then and now by telling him his time would come. Be patient. And it did, two weeks ago, complete with a try-scoring pass from his sibling on a two-try debut, against Samoa. And his mindset for this afternoon?
"The main thing that has been mentioned to us is 108 years without beating them. That's the only fuel you need to get you going. I don't think I have to sit down and say to myself: 'This could be the last time I play against the All Blacks'. There's so much history. It's been so long without beating them."