BRENDAN O'BRIEN: There's an arrogance about the All Blacks that is well-earned

Wayne Smith’s choice of reading material, when the All Blacks landed in Ireland back in 2005, was instructive.

Alan English’s ‘Stand Up and Fight’ had only appeared on the bookshelves earlier that year and the New Zealand assistant coach’s immersion in its pages was proof that Munster’s defeat of New Zealand, at Thomond Park in 1978, held a fascination that was in no way limited to the one province in Ireland.

What was really telling was that Smith drew a direct line from that legendary game, in Limerick, straight through to the fixture the latest generation of tourists was to play later that week, against an Irish team that was light years beyond the norms and practices of the amateur era.

“That’s 27 years ago and they have had 55 reunions celebrating their win,” Smith said of ’78, the story of which has been embellished by the release of the book for the game’s 40th anniversary.

“That tells you how much it means to them. I think we’re just going to have to go out and expect (Ireland) to play with that patriotism and passion.

“I wouldn’t think that we would get much ground given to us. We’re going to have to take what we can get. It’s a strong side; very strong up-front. Their tight-five is very experienced. 

"They’ve quite a few Lions in the team, so they’ll have something to prove, no doubt. And passion. Passion fuels performance. They are going to have plenty of that.”

Passion. Patriotism. The usual guff.

This was an Irish side that had long left the days of boot, bite, and bollock behind it. 

Ireland would end the noughties with four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam in the ledger, with the scalps of every major rugby nation, aside from the All Blacks, and with four Heineken Cup titles to speak for the widespread upsurge in standards, belief, and momentum.

And yet, they still didn’t map with the All Blacks.

The last step is always the steepest, regardless of the climb, and Ireland’s dealings with the game’s standard bearers in the noughties spoke for that.

In eight meetings, it seems almost bizarre now that the closest they would come to a win would be Warren Gatland’s last game in charge, in 2001, when they were still in the foothills of their upwardly mobile path.

There has been little or no talk of Irish passion or pride from the Kiwi camp this week. 

The idea of someone drifting back to 1978 — or even 2005 — in an attempt to contextualise this latest meeting of the countries would be preposterous. 

So, too, the notion that the visitors would make 15 changes from their previous week’s team, as they did 13 years ago.

“If that’s a second-string team, I’ll eat my hat,” Ireland head coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, offered before a game lost 45-7. 

The consensus then was that New Zealand didn’t just have the best side in the world, but the second-best, too. All that has changed now, with Ireland standing one rung below the All Blacks on the ladder.

Kiwi players and coaches have been liberal with their praise of Ireland this week. That’s nothing new, but the language has changed. 

Skillsets and strategies have been lauded. A few of the Irish players have even earned mentions by name, which isn’t exactly the norm for any southern hemisphere nation pitching up on these shores.

It’s clear that Ireland have been clocked as a clear-and-present danger.

Steve Hansen’s long-held insistence that Conor Murray could be sprung from rehab like a rabbit from a hat was curious in itself, while, on Tuesday, his assistant coach, Ian Foster, made a distastefully ill-judged remark about Bundee Aki. 

If all this points to a smidgen of insecurity, then it hints at a sense of incredulity, as well.

Boil it all down and the Kiwis just don’t believe Ireland should ever beat them. There is an arrogance about the All Blacks that is well-earned.

Hansen was nothing but gracious in the wake of their loss to Joe Schmidt’s side in Chicago, two years ago, but just as his defence leaked that day, so, too, did his true feelings in the months afterwards.

Less than two weeks later and he was previewing the return game in Dublin with the observation that New Zealand didn’t play anywhere near to their capabilities; that they played into Ireland’s hands tactically; and that they had continually shot themselves in the foot with the concession of 12 penalties and 16 unforced errors.

Four months later, he was at it again, when pointing to the absence in the Windy City of three of their best locks, while stressing again how poor his own team was, and he had a pop at Ireland’s players yesterday, to boot.

Boil all that down and it’s obvious that these All Blacks still don’t see Ireland as their equals.

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