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Isa Nacewa: I expect Ireland to meet New Zealand in the World Cup - in the final


Cian Healy breaks through the tackle of Richie McCaw in 2013. Isa Nacewa expects the two sides to meet in this year's World Cup Final

Cian Healy breaks through the tackle of Richie McCaw in 2013. Isa Nacewa expects the two sides to meet in this year's World Cup Final

Cian Healy breaks through the tackle of Richie McCaw in 2013. Isa Nacewa expects the two sides to meet in this year's World Cup Final

March 21, 2015.

A day when New Zealanders, for once at least, averted their gaze from domestic affairs and realised that a rugby revolution was happening 11,000 miles away.

And a day when I truly came to the belief that Ireland could really win the World Cup this October.

In years to come - in weeks to come, perhaps - that March afternoon might be seen as a red-letter day for a new dawn in world rugby, as well a turning point in how Kiwis begin to adjust their understanding of where they fit into it all.

That day in March was unusual in more ways than one. Not only were thousands of Kiwis tuned into the unfolding drama of 'Super Saturday' but they were talking about it as well.

And it was unusual too to hear just who was talking about it. I was still working with Auckland Blues at the time and Graham Henry, the reigning World Cup-winning coach, was with us as that Six Nations drama unfolded.

He was gripped by what he had seen and the questions erupted from him like a torrent. What about Ireland's chances in the World Cup? Why do you think they are so good? Who are their best players?

Now there are very tight coaching circles in New Zealand, especially amongst the echelon of former and current All Blacks staff. But this was the first time someone had come to ask me directly about Ireland.

Even Ian Foster, the current assistant, was pressing me for knowledge. I had always praised how good Joe Schmidt has been in Ireland for the previous 18 months on TV work and in the press.

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But suddenly the interest had been heightened as a direct result of what we had all witnessed on that unforgettable 'Super Saturday'.


What really opened everyone's eyes up was the brand of rugby that was played, not just by Ireland, but by the other home nations. It wasn't just the time difference that forced people to wake up and smell some coffee.

It was the most exciting rugby anyone had seen anywhere at any time. It was a lurch from the historic lack of respect for skills level up north. 'Wow these guys can actually throw the ball around and play!'

People realised they better start taking this collective threat seriously because the World Cup is only around the corner.


Paul O' Connell offers the trophy to the rest of the team.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Paul O' Connell offers the trophy to the rest of the team. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Paul O' Connell offers the trophy to the rest of the team. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The U-20 World Cup last summer helped to form this view too. England won the title again. Ireland ran the hosts close. The prevailing mood was that the gap was closing.

The northern hemisphere teams have now genuinely caught up in terms of skill - at all ages. Aside from the usual platitudes spoken about contenders in a World Cup year, there's a realisation that the northern sides can actually play too.

And the aura that has been building up around Schmidt and Ireland really exploded into life.

It hasn't always been the case. Ireland, like the rest of the north, have never really been on the radar in the south.

There was a bit of arrogance when you were a player in New Zealand playing Super Rugby and being around the guys preparing for the Tri Nations.

It's like a bubble and when you're in that bubble, what is going on in another part of the world is literally that. It's not your world.

All you hear about is the All Blacks. You genuinely don't think that anything else can be better.

So there is no interest in what is going in terms of Europe, whether it's Six Nations or European Cup. The mentality is that Super Rugby is the biggest and best competition, bar none. You don't have to look anywhere else.

Personally, I would have gotten up to watch the European action because a lot of my mates had gone north and I wanted to see what they were getting involved in.

I was fascinated by the intensity of it even though the prevailing style of rugby during the Six Nations was all about winning penalties. It was still stuck in the old days. They never seemed to actually play.

For Kiwis, it was always simply an aesthetic argument. It just wasn't classed as interesting rugby.

Ironically, since I've come north, the majority of New Zealanders wouldn't get up out of their beds to watch Super Rugby now, unless it's a really convenient time.

European rugby is the big deal now. It cannot be ignored as it was for so many years.

Warren Gatland achieved so much with Wasps and Wales in the past but many of those triumphs - even if they were back-to-back European titles, Grand Slams - would have fallen off the radar of the average Kiwi.

Or, at least, even if it did interrupt their normal routine, it would not have meant much. 'Well, it's not Super Rugby or Tri Nations, is it?' That's the response you would get before.

The economic disparity between north and south has been the most significant factor in swaying the public mood. It's not like before when the older guys just headed north to top up their pension.

Now it's young guys who are leaving in their prime. Charles Piutau is just 23. He wants to play in the World Cup but he's already decided to head to Ulster.

They finally realise there is a bigger world outside Super Rugby - okay, a richer one too - but there is an acknowledgement that standards have risen accordingly in line with inflation.


I don't think New Zealand became complacent over the years just because of their historical attitude to the rest of the world.

Their insularity was understandable because they had become used to being the best. Their strongest competition was the competition amongst their own.

But just because they may now view other nations differently, their view of themselves won't have altered that much. They'll still be bloody hard to beat at a World Cup!

But they're no longer invincible. Everyone knows that They're no stronger than any other team. They're no fitter than any other team. They're no faster than any other team.

They just have the real mental edge to perform under pressure. And that will be needed at this World Cup more than any other tournament in history.

Everyone is telling me that New Zealand are "creaking" yet they can deliver at this level because they have that mental edge to do so when it matters.

But the northern teams have closed the gap. New Zealanders now seriously rate Ireland as World Cup contenders for the first time.

It has been a vast change and I have witnessed it at first hand since coming here in 2008. The younger players coming through now are far more advanced in terms of knowing what it takes to make it as a professional player.

Hence, Joe has been able to develop an environment that is 100pc competitive all of the time. One guys steps out, a key player falls down, another younger, less experienced guy can step in and do the job. That is key.

Everyone expects Ireland to meet New Zealand in this World Cup. So do I. Except not in a quarter-final, but a final.