Former New Zealand skipper Sean Fitzpatrick has challenged Ireland to turn provincial form into Test match success as Brian O’Driscoll’s side embark on a three-match series against the world champions over the coming month.
Excitement may be mounting in the Irish squad as they prepare for take-off but Fitzpatrick, and indeed ex-Munster and Ireland flanker Alan Quinlan warned yesterday that a productive domestic/European season guarantees nothing against the kingpins of the world.
However, Ireland’s standing was greatly enhanced this season with Leinster capturing the Heineken Cup, Ulster getting to the final and Munster going through the group stages undefeated before losing out to Ulster in the quarter-final.
Connacht added to the party by pulling the rug from under eventual Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins with a sensational pool win in Galway.
However, Fitzpatrick and Quinlan, both talking with Sky Sports hats on in Dublin yesterday, sent a guarded warning to the Irish.
Quinlan said he would be “excited” about getting on a tour of this nature and said it was an opportunity for Ireland.
“There is a perception out there that it is an awful bloody tour at the end of a long season, people feeling sorry for them. But I would say the Irish players are pretty ambitious, they have shown that over the last number of years, it is a great challenge and some time Ireland will beat an All Blacks team and I think this is a great opportunity.”
He tempered his optimism, though, by cautioning that Ireland must, to have any chance of winning even one of the three Tests, keep their best players on the pitch. Should injury strike either or both frontline prop forwards Cian Healy and Mike Ross, he fears for Ireland.
Fitzpatrick offered a glimmer of hope, but warned it was based on provincial success by Irish clubs rather than what had been achieved recently by those same players in a green jersey.
“They’re taking 29 players and the whole focus has to be on winning a Test series. If I was an Irish player I would be so excited, going out there to play against the world champions, the biggest challenge, difficult place to tour, but for me, I loved going to South Africa as a challenge because it was the hardest place for us to go and win.
“We had never won a series there and to go there in 1996, everyone was so up for it and so focused. Ireland need to have a real belief in themselves and the squad. In the past that has probably been the problem, they haven’t had a real belief, and surely off the back of the Heineken Cup success they should have a degree of confidence.”
Fitzpatrick also suggested it was maybe time to gel players from four provinces which, he says, New Zealand do year on year despite the intense rivalry within the country.
“Ireland should take a lot from that, especially the way Leinster played right through the pool games and then in the final they were quite outstanding. They have world class players; the thing about Ireland is the way they mould together actually, that is the key.
“I think what New Zealand has done so well over the years is that our provincial teams come together and the ultimate goal is to play for the All Blacks, so all the information from the provinces is being fed into the All Blacks machine.”
Ireland, he said, hadn’t followed suit. “I can’t answer for them but in the past we’ve seen great performances from Munster and from Leinster; when they (same players) step up to the international stage, more often than not they’ve struggled, especially against the southern hemisphere teams.”
If Ireland appear to have problems in filling prop forward vacancies from within, all is not perfect in New Zealand either, as Fitzpatrick explained.
Super 15 franchise The Blues (Auckland) are going through a traumatic season and calls have been made to tempt either Vern Cotter (Clermont Auvergne) or Joe Schmidt (Leinster) home to guide them back to normality.
“Yeah,” said Fitzpatrick, “there has been a real call to get him (Schmidt) back at the moment, he’s obviously well known, there has been a lot of talk about him. Vern Cotter is top of the list at the moment, you only have to look at the performance of the Blues (Auckland) to see that quality coaches are sought after. He (Schmidt) is regarded very highly and I am sure that if the NZRU could get their hands on him, they would.”
That is one battle New Zealand rugby won’t win readily. Schmidt has confirmed he will be back to help guide Leinster to an unprecedented third successive successful Heineken Cup campaign next season.
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