Sport Rugby

Friday 19 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: Pressure of Kiwi perfection gives Ireland fighting chance

Schmidt's men can ask serious questions of an All Blacks team on verge of historic clean sweep

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

They should be spent now, shouldn't they? They should be worn down to the brink of competitive illiteracy. After nearly a calendar year of ceaseless rugby, the All Blacks should be pre-occupied with home and thoughts of a warm, sun-kindled Christmas.

Tomorrow brings their 14th Test of a marathon season. By now, their only communication with this part of the world ought really be by Skype or email.

But they're here for history, the brutal implications hinted at by a 20-point handicap now weighing this country's rugby community down with silent terror.

What if they cut loose early? What if they happen upon the same great canyons of space offered to those night-clubbing Wallabies? Victory would secure a perfect, clean sweep season for Steve Hansen's troops, the first recorded since rugby went professional.

Will they even return the bodies?

But that's the thing about tomorrow. All those homilies being offered up for a supposedly doomed Irish team must seem heaven-sent to Joe Schmidt. To the outside world, Ireland are headed for Niagara Falls in a barrell. So imagine men like Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell and Johnny Sexton sitting on the insulting end of that handicap this week? For a game about to be played on their home patch?

If nothing else, take it that Schmidt has been in charge of some rather riled people this week, and anger is surely an appropriate weapon for Ireland to carry into battle tomorrow.

Not reckless anger. Not the wild, gun-toting stuff that encouraged Gary Halpin to give Sean Fitzpatrick the finger after scoring an eighth-minute World Cup try at Ellis Park in '95. Ireland's anger needs to be structured and sustainable. They need to keep asking questions that a tired team doesn't want to be asked.

Can they pack enough gunpowder into those questions to claim an historic win? Doubtful. Can they do enough to make this awkward for New Zealand? Write it down, they can.

GAPING

You've probably got to put yourself in Hansen's shoes to see how this last leg might just be giving him a migraine. The All Blacks are rugby's travelling circus, contracted to pitch up in northern hemisphere cities and absorb all the best shots their hosts can summon.

They must feel sometimes as if they're being wheeled around in a cage, the public gaping as if watching muscled strongmen prepare to rip up phone books.

To a degree, they play on that caricature. Being visibly, palpably hard is as intrinsic a part of the All Black identity as any of the technical stuff. You just think of the story often told about former Irish hooker Steve Smith once landing a haymaker on his opposite number, yep the same Sean Fitzpatrick. The punch drew instant blood, but little apparent outrage. It is said that Fitzpatrick simply took out his mouth guard, spat out three teeth, slipped the shield back in again and fixed Smith with an impassive stare.

The simple 'horseplay' on an All Blacks team bus can, reputedly, be more attritional than a Six Nations scrum. This column has never particularly warmed to that school bully side of the New Zealand rugby personality. In '91, we described the All Blacks who came here on World Cup duty as carrying themselves with "the gaiety of gravediggers."

Five years ago, we walked into an extraordinary blizzard of anger for having the effrontery to question if New Zealand were actually good at anything other than rugby. One visiting journalist accused us of "holding a grudge for every one of Ireland's losses to the All Blacks." The figure at the time was 20. That's rather a lot of grudge.

But the truth is we weren't so much articulating hostility as ambivalence. The All Blacks covet the game in a way we cannot parse, let alone replicate. There has always been too much else going on in our world. We like to play little games as an indicator.

Like imagining the wristy scrum-half that 'Gooch' Cooper might have made; or King Henry playing puppeteer at 10; or just wondering on a broader script of the diverse glories Irish rugby might have inherited had the GAA not been so natural a calling for athletes like Michael Fennelly, Sean Cavanagh, Bernard Brogan or Michael Murphy.

Rugby colours New Zealand's national identity in a way it never will here. At times, that can make them seem unhealthily insular. Some of the best sides they've sent north have radiated self-importance almost to the point of parody. That began to change with John Hart's team of '97. They were more approachable than any previous side, seeming to understand a need to communicate with the outside world.

And every side since has eased that little bit closer to being accessible.

So much so, that Hansen's men – even accepting that recent leak of whiteboard hubris in London – come across as, arguably, the best and most attractive All Blacks team of all time.

They seem likeable. They produce rugby that is layered and nuanced and intelligent. In players like Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and the sadly injured Dan Carter, they have perhaps the three greatest exponents of their positions that rugby has ever seen. Yet, they are flesh and blood and human emotion too and, right now, they find themselves pursued by a potentially corrosive din. Rugby always presumes upon certain things with the All Blacks, but maybe never more so than now.

On history's doorstep, Hansen's men can't possibly be sure whether to smile or yawn. Losing in Dublin is unthinkable. Imagine returning to the bottom of the world without that perfect record? It's a long shot, but Ireland will make sure to raise the possibility.

Irish Independent

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