The old cliché that real life tragedy puts sport in perspective has merit and All Blacks Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty were understandably espousing that message yesterday.
Ahead of their Guinness Series Test rematch with Ireland on Saturday, the pair were present in Castleknock College at a skills challenge in promotion of team sponsors AIG Insurance.
And while both were in good humour, they were also greatly concerned by recent events back in their homeland.
A series of powerful earthquakes rocked the country’s South Island yesterday, which led to a tsunami and a loss of life. As a native of Dunedin city, Smith was clearly worried about the tragedy.
“The first reaction is just to make sure that everyone is okay, and making sure that family back home are safe and the whole team checked in and made sure that our families were okay,” explained the All Backs full-back.
“Then the next sort of thought goes out to those that were really affected and our thoughts go out to them. We’re thinking of those people back home.
“I haven’t had anyone affected personally. I made sure my wife and my wee two-year-old were safe. As far as the team goes I think everyone’s okay but there are going to be people effected and our thoughts go out to those.” Smith’s international colleague Crotty had similar concerns. The 28-year-old, who lives in Christchurch, was straight on the phone to his partner after hearing of the earthquake.
“My house is safe, and all my family and friends are all safe,” said Crotty. ““It was pretty stressful yesterday when you’re trying to board a flight here but you’re not really sure what’s going on back home. You get different reports and stuff.
“I woke my partner up, our house is probably a little bit too close to the beach so I sent her to her mother’s house because there was tsunami warnings and stuff like that.
“Everyone was a bit nervous. I’m glad those people were safe, but it is sad to see the loss back home.”
For a rugby-mad nation, a win this weekend might help to boost spirits.
Yet Crotty was not entertaining any mock sympathy from the media when it was suggested one reporter joked he was ‘sorry’ for Ireland inflicting defeat on his side.
Crotty smiled: “Don’t be sorry! It’s a proud moment for an Irish team and a lot of Irish people, you can be very proud of your team.”
On being the first All Blacks team to lose to Ireland, the Kiwi centre added: “It was going to happen eventually. It’s just disappointing it happened a couple of weeks ago.
“We just got a few things wrong and Ireland played really well. It’s good we can take some learning from that, it’s important we do that and put it into play this weekend.
“There are a couple of learnings from the last 10 minutes that we can take in to this game.
“It’s a blessing in disguise we can learn from them. The All Blacks always believe that, no matter what the score, if there’s a minute or two left we can get the job done.”
Whether Crotty gets the chance to put those lessons into practice is another story. The 28-year-old previously broke Irish hearts with the equalising try at Aviva back in 2013 before the All Blacks nicked the win. But he had no such influence in Chicago as the centre was forced off after 25 minutes of the match at Soldier Field- the wounded troop struck down by a niggling hamstring problem.
On his recovery, Crotty said: “It’s good - it’s come a long way. When I did the hamstring, I thought it was a lot worse than it was “I’ve worked hard with the medical staff, so I’m just seeing how it goes over the rest of the week.”
Meanwhile, Sam Whitelock is another injury concern as the 28-year-old lock has two days to prove his fitness for New Zealand’s revenge mission.
New Zealand are desperate to restore their potent first-choice lock pairing of Brodie Retallick and Whitelock. The All Blacks are itching to atone for their 40-29 loss to Ireland in Chicago and would be boosted hugely should Retallick and Whitelock pair up once again.
Retallick is fit after concussion, but Whitelock is still battling ankle trouble, with assistant coach Ian Foster admitting the 28-year-old is not yet out of the woods.
“He has still got a few hurdles to go over in the next two days, to test it in a game-like situation,” said Foster.
Ireland claimed their maiden win over New Zealand at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Joe Schmidt’s side downing the All Blacks for the first time in 111 years of trying.
New Zealand surrendered their record 18-match winning streak in the US, and are now desperate to make amends on Irish soil.
Flanker Jerome Kaino was parachuted in at lock in Chicago in the absence of both Retallick and Whitelock, with Luke Romano having returned home due to a family bereavement.
Ireland targeted that weakness mercilessly, but there will be no repeat this weekend, with Retallick back in the saddle.
Whitelock’s potential return would strengthen the All Blacks still further, with the Crusaders second row aiming for his first action since the 37-10 win over Australia in Auckland on October 22.
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