Irish pride won't be enough to beat ABs

TOP CLASS: Irish monster Paul O'Connell is regarded by many to be the greatest lock of his generation, but he's unlikely to have an All Black scalp to his name.
TOP CLASS: Irish monster Paul O'Connell is regarded by many to be the greatest lock of his generation, but he's unlikely to have an All Black scalp to his name.

All Blacks. They're pesky old things around Ireland's green pastures. Two simple words, a whole world of pain.

On the face of things, Ireland and New Zealand are very similar. Agricultural islands of stunning natural beauty on the periphery of their respective continents, both nations have long shared a passion for sporting endeavours and learnt to punch well above their weight.

On the rugby pitch, however, things have been different. Very different.

CLASSY OPERATOR: Tony Ward in action for the Lions against South Africa in 1980.
CLASSY OPERATOR: Tony Ward in action for the Lions against South Africa in 1980.

In fact such has been the one-sided nature of their long rivalry one could better describe it as a case of the one-cow farmer taking on Fonterra.

If Ireland has a thorn in its sporting side, then the All Blacks are surely it. The record makes for painful reading: Played 27, lost 26, drawn one. Not even the strongest Irish whiskey can ease that kind of pain.

Last weekend the Wallabies ruthlessly exposed what was the flattest Irish effort in an age. Tipped by many to be a fairly routine win at home, it turned into the polar opposite as the Irish fell off tackles, looked sluggish in defence and even suffered the agony of possessing the first scrum in the post-war era to be shoved around by a Wallaby pack.

T'was, as the Irish would say, horrific stuff alright.

But Ireland seem to thrive with a backs-to-the-wall mentality. They've certainly been good enough to beat the All Blacks in the past but have always fallen short. On most of those occasions it was the Irish beating themselves, not New Zealand.

Tony Ward is a rarity. An Irishman who's beaten the All Blacks. Back in 1978, the former Ireland and Lions first-five dropped the goals that guided Munster to their landmark 12-0 victory over New Zealand at Limerick's Thomond Park.

The iconic events of that day have been well documented down the years, but for Ward it's time to move on. He parked the result long ago. That it's still being talked about to this day, he feels, only highlights Ireland's abysmal record against the All Blacks.

"It's sad, but it's a reflection on our record against them over 35 years that we're still talking about Munster beating New Zealand," Ward told Fairfax Media.

"The play, Alone It Stands, is on in theatres here again. Now, I think it's a great play and it's great fun but I think it's a sad reflection on our record given that's where we're still at."

Ward was a winner. An early mould of later players such as Brian O'Driscoll, Keith Wood and Paul O'Connell who believed Ireland should never settle for the odd scalp over the likes of South Africa, Australia, France and England.

New Zealand aside, the other big four have all arrived in Dublin in recent times and been suitably walloped for their arrogance. But the All Blacks are different, a breed apart you might say.

"I didn't think we (Munster) had a snowball's change in hell of beating New Zealand, but the one thing we had to buy into was Munster's incredible record against touring sides," Ward says.

"People seem to think that Munster's record against touring sides began in 1978, it was 40 years before that."

The national team have no such record to buy into as the All Blacks ride into town like fifteen dark lords ready to sack and pillage the Irish on their own turf. Not since the Vikings sailed into Dublin all those centuries ago have the locals expected their boys to be on the end of such a hiding.

But Ward thinks Irish pride can come after a fall, believing they are a far better outfit than their run-out against the Wallabies would have the rugby public believe.

"If you face up to the pressure that's put on you and if you get the performance that befits that, then there's every possibility that what we did against the All Blacks might happen," he says.

"I'm not saying that Ireland will beat the All Blacks on Sunday, because I don't believe they will, but the very bottom line, and we didn't see it against Australia last Saturday, is pride and performance.

"Collectively (against Australia) it fell below the standard required.

"I do believe that Ireland will be better and they will deliver a much more passionate performance this weekend, but enough to beat the All Blacks? Not at this point in time."

There once was a time in Ireland when the absence of Dan Carter would have boosted the home side but with world-class operators Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett stepping up to the mark, that particular avenue of hope has turned out to be another cul-de-sac.

Ward, who was a test-starter for the Lions on their 1980 tour of South Africa, believes Carter is still the benchmark by which all international first-fives should be judged.

"I think Carter has become the most complete outside half that I've seen. He's just got everything. I love his attitude and there's an honesty about his game that other players feed off," he says.

"I think it's hugely significant that if you go back over the last 10 years, whether it's Steve Hansen or Graham Henry in charge, the one consistent strand the whole way through has been Richie McCaw at seven and Carter at 10, despite the depth of talent that New Zealand have.

"Carter will be missed against Ireland but the All Blacks will make up for it. Cruden and Barrett are two very exciting players, they just don't have the all round game that Carter has."

Graham Mourie's All Blacks arrived in Ireland in 1978 with a fearsome reputation and returned home humbled by 15 working men who did what no other Irish team has since failed to replicate. But for Ward these All Blacks are something special and deserving of all the plaudits that come their way.

"This All Black team is as good as anything we've ever seen. The quality of rugby, the tempo, the angles they run at. They're just a joy to behold and in my opinion they are way ahead of everyone, including South Africa," he says.

Looks like history will have to wait a little longer, then.

Fairfax Media