Belief earns its reward as Ireland no longer fear All Black bogeyman

Both Munster and Ireland will have confidence soaring after success against All Black sides, writes Donal Lenihan. 

Belief earns its reward as Ireland no longer fear All Black bogeyman

They said that, physiologically, it couldn’t be done and then, on a damp May evening in Oxford University in 1954, Roger Bannister broke the glass ceiling and ran the first sub 4 minute mile — 3.59.4 to be exact.

Within a year, four athletes not only repeated the feat but two, Australian John Landy and Hungary’s Laszlo Tabori, ran faster times. Indeed when Tabori won at the British Games meet in London in May 1955, the first three men across the line all cracked the four-minute-barrier in the same race for the first time. How did this happen? Belief. Once athletes saw that it could be done, the floodgates opened.

Whether we like it or not, Irish rugby teams had a psychological barrier when it came to beating New Zealand and Munster’s one off win over the same opposition in 1978 never translated onto the international stage despite a number of close calls.

All that changed in recent times with the women’s side finally showing the way when they beat the Black Ferns 17-14 at the World Cup in Paris in 2014.

Fast forward to last summer’s U20 World Cup in Manchester and Nigel Carolan’s exceptionally talented group of young men did likewise, beating their New Zealand counterparts 33-24 in another gripping encounter.

In Chicago 10 days ago, Ireland not only beat New Zealand at full international level for the first time but outsmarted, outmuscled and outlasted them. It was an extraordinary performance against an extraordinary team.

Twenty-four hours earlier the New Zealand Maori side, a squad packed with plenty Super Rugby experience and several potential All Blacks in their midst, blew away the USA international side.

Admittedly they were fortified by four members of the full All Black squad who coach Steve Hansen was anxious to secure game-time for and, in perfect conditions at Toyota Park, they won at a canter.

That is what makes the achievement of the Munster side that beat the famed Maori outfit in Thomond Park last Friday night even more noteworthy.

Let there be no talk of the inclement weather conditions aiding the hosts — anyone who has spent a winter in New Zealand knows perfectly well that it can be pretty wet and windy there too.

Indeed one of the most complete performances delivered by a New Zealand side was in the opening test against the Lions in Christchurch in 2005 when Dan Carter produced a masterclass in atrocious conditions.

These guys know how to play in the rain.

That is why, with a pack fielding just two regular starters in captain Tommy O’Donnell and Niall Scannell, in the absence of six other Munster forwards who featured at some stage for Ireland against Canada the following day, this performance was so special.

Rassie Erasmus now appreciates there is plenty of young talent lurking in the background with the second-row pair Darren O’Shea and John Madigan, along with Robin Copeland and Conor Oliver in the back row, putting in a massive shift.

Five months into the job as director of rugby, Erasmus now has a far greater appreciation, after the emotional rollercoaster that has hit Munster rugby over the last few weeks, of the special characteristics that make up rugby in the province.

When the Lions tour New Zealand next summer, their fixture against the New Zealand Maori will be seen as the unofficial fourth test. The last time the sides met, in Hamilton on that 2005 tour, the Maori won 19-13 and will fancy their chances of repeating the dose in Rotorua next June.

That puts Munster’s achievement into perspective.

The fact that yet another Irish side managed to defeat a highly rated and respected team wearing the famous Silver Fern will only add to the feelgood factor within the Irish squad in the build-up to Saturday’s fascinating contest back in Dublin.

You can be sure the texts were flying between several members of the Irish squad and their Munster counterparts late last Friday night.

Likewise you can be certain that some of the Maori squad were in contact with the All Black party, describing the physical and emotional onslaught they encountered in Limerick. Steve Hansen’s men can expect more of the same in Dublin as a packed Aviva Stadium will be bouncing when Kieran Reid pulls his men together in preparation for the Haka.

The All Black captain will be met with a respectful silence, unlike Twickenham where the crowd invariably drown out the ritual with a rendition of Swing Low. From that point forward, however, I expect the Lansdowne Road faithful to get behind their team like never before. That Irish performance in Chicago deserves that every Irish person privileged to have a ticket play their part in helping to repeat the dose.

Make no mistake, from the moment the final whistle blew in Soldier Field, the only thing on the mind of the New Zealand playing and coaching staff was the return fixture. If the visits to Chicago and Rome on this tour to date provided plentiful opportunities for exciting off field sight seeing and activity, you can be sure that since their arrival in Dublin the entire squad have been fully locked and loaded in preparation for Saturday.

The news of another earthquake in Wellington and down the east coast of the south island will also have impacted their squad hard and they will feel a strong sense of responsibility to deliver a big performance and lift spirits at home.

Strangely, despite scoring 10 tries in their 68-10 rout of Italy last weekend New Zealand were, once again, uncharacteristically sloppy.

The fragile nature of the Italian challenge may not be of much benefit for what Ireland will bring to the table. Then again that may be largely irrelevant as the vast majority of the players who will feature in Dublin were left stew over their defeat in Chicago and not involved against the Italians.

The most significant aspect to emerge in Rome was the return to arms of second-row totem Brodie Retallick, who was introduced off the bench after injury on 54 minutes. All eyes will now focus on whether his long-term locking partner Sam Whitelock, who has also rejoined the squad, will be fit and available after a recent ankle injury. Either way Jerome Kaino is certain to return to the back row after his failed attempt at deputising as a lock in Chicago.

Selection will play a key part for Ireland also as Joe Schmidt contemplates who to start in the No 7 shirt after the terrible knee injury sustained by Jordi Murphy. My gut says Josh van der Flier will get the nod, with Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony battling it out for a bench slot. Then again, Schmidt could opt for a six-two split with Iain Henderson now too back in the mix. Keith Earls will also be considered for a role in the match day squad after a fine return to action against Canada.

As we discovered last time out, matching the bench impact of the All Blacks is crucial and selecting the best combination for the eight slots available to Schmidt will be every bit as important as getting the starting side right. Therefore tomorrow’s respective team announcements will prove really instructive. Let the battle begin.

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