AS New Zealand welcomed its first day of winter, Ireland touched down in Wellington following a 29-hour haul to the Land of the Long White Cloud.
At the airport, the Munster contingent still wore the smiles of Heineken Cup champions and, coupled with Leinster’s Magners League success and a decent win by an Ireland XV over the Barbarians last Tuesday, the whole party passed through the arrivals hall with a spring in their step.
They were in good company, too, on their Quantas flight from Heathrow. Sunderland manager, Roy Keane, was on board. The Corkman will be observing the coaching techniques of the All Black management this week.
Keane will view how the best prepared team in the world builds up for a Test match, but those he’ll hoping to pick up tips from — Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith — will be wary that Ireland stand-in coach, Michael Bradley, brings a team of winners to New Zealand.
The Ireland class of 2008 is not as successful as the Triple Crown-winning class of 2006 which came desperately close to winning in Hamilton, but within this group there is a belief that a first ever Test win over the All Blacks is possible.
Last night the Irish players attempted to brush away the jet lag cobwebs with a short training run, while up the street at the salubrious Intercontinental Hotel the All Blacks machine arrived in this beautiful city on the southern tip of New Zealand’s north island. Earlier in the day, Graham Henry announced his 26-man squad for the Saturday’s Test against Ireland and the two Tests against England. Some pundits feel Henry may rest some members of the Canterbury Crusaders who captured the Super 14 last Saturday night — Ritchie McCaw led Robbie Deans’ men to a 20-12 victory over the NSW Waratahs with Daniel Carter kicking 15 points. It is felt Henry may experiment against Ireland before unleashing his strongest available XV in two games with England.
Not that Henry has a very experienced squad with which to experiment. With 14 players from his RWC squad are injured, retired, overseas or overlooked, all three Tests represent a chance of redemption for a coach who, seven months after the shock World Cup quarter-final exit to France, is not very popular with the New Zealand public.
There was a groundswell of support for the Crusaders’ record-breaking coach, Deans, who brought the Christchurch-based franchise its fifth Super title, to become the new All Blacks coach. Instead he pitches up across the Tasman Sea to take the reins as coach of the Wallabies.
Bradley is talking about the confidence in the Ireland squad, but Ireland haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1905, a dismal record which reads: P20, W0, D1, L19.
A strange season for Irish rugby saw the national team’s stock plummet and the provinces pick up domestic and European success, so the tour is taking place in surreal circumstances.
“You could see the confidence particularly when the Munster lads arrived,” said Bradley last night in Wellington. “There is an awful lot of confidence in the squad, obviously generated from the provincial wins. This test represents a good challenge for us. Ireland haven’t beaten New Zealand and we’re conscious of that but any side is vulnerable in a one-off.”
A boost for Ireland is the impending arrival of Brian O’Driscoll today. He will jet in along with recently crowned Guinness Premiership-winner, Eoin Reddan of Wasps, and Geordan Murphy of Leicester Tigers.
Bradley, naturally, was delighted to have O’Driscoll back on board after a traumatic week for the Ireland captain following the death of his close friend. “He found himself in tragic circumstances last Tuesday, but he has coped very well with it. We are delighted that he is coming out. We were always fully confident that he would come out. He’s a strong character and he’s always stood up to challenges in his life. This one was probably one of the hardest ones he’s had to face.”
The last time Bradley was in these parts was 16 years ago when Ireland were hammered in the old Athletic Park. Bradley was captain for the second test, but a week after coming up short by just three points in Carisbrook, the All Blacks cut loose in Wellington, winning 59-6.
Two years ago Ireland came very close to recording a first win over the All Blacks, and Bradley feels there is a determination within the group to atone for that defeat. “There are a lot of Irish players looking to get a second crack at NZ. A lot of them (from ‘06) are in the squad at the moment. Previously, in 2002, Ireland got quite close to them. I think New Zealand would be quite wary of Ireland, and prior to the World Cup were making utterances in the direction that Ireland had the potential to do well in the competition. As it happened we didn’t do as well as we would have liked but the players have something to prove in that area.”
A long week begins.
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