OPINION: The Irish are on their way and this could be the year they break their win drought against the All Blacks, probably in the first test in Auckland.
In a country with a population similar to New Zealand, rugby is only the fourth ranked sport behind gaelic football, hurling and soccer, yet the passion of the players and support base, in small pockets, is equal to our own.
Their recent successes are highlighted in the Heineken Cup history where Leinster (3), Munster (2) and Ulster have won this symbol of European supremacy six times since the competition began in 1995.
The all-Irish final in 2012 showed these players are at the top of their game.
Professionalism has been the injection which has mobilised Irish rugby in to a well respected rugby nation, one that usually sits in one of the top six slots in world rankings.
Before that it was a truly amateurish and charismatic group who could overpower most teams on any given day but could just as easily lose to those who it should have beaten. It did not matter though, the game was way more important than the outcome. There were stories to tell and songs to sing.
Fantastic players and personalities were the feature of decades of Irish rugby. Jacky Kyle at flyhalf was an olden day Dan Carter. The flying winger Tony O'Reilly was just 18 when first selected in a career that spanned 16 seasons and he still remains a leading British and Irish Lions try scorer.
Mike Gibson was perhaps one of the truly great rugby players of all time, able to play in four backline positions, having 69 caps for Ireland and going on five tours with the British Lions, including the 1971 series in New Zealand when they defeated the All Blacks.
Willie John McBride was the most Irish of them all. A tough lock forward who played for Ireland 63 times, he went on five British and Irish Lions tours and captained the side in South Africa in 1974 where the series was won 3-0. It was McBride who introduced the "99" call which demanded every player had to join the fight, or as the case may be, get their retaliation in first.
The modern day contemporaries are best exemplified in the form of the current skipper Brian O'Driscoll – a typically personable Irishman.
Now, with 117 caps under his belt, he remains a truly fantastic player in every sense of the word. An attacker and defender of the highest order, he will be planning for the biggest day in his career, a win against the All Blacks.
Coaching in Ireland, long before the advent of professionalism, was a brilliant experience. Dublin was a vibrant city and the people were supportive and fun to be around.
Based on the humour and wit at the Ireland versus the United States game at Yarrow last season, when sitting amongst the Irish supporters, nothing has changed. This is a nation who will not threaten the team if they lose but will instead tell a story or two where they can laugh at themselves.
The big question is: Can Ireland really win?
This is now a group of hardened professionals playing in tough competitions in Europe. I am sure they are physically up to it but one wonders whether they are in the same league tactically and mentally.
A lot will depend on how the All Blacks turn out for their first test since the Rugby World Cup. Historically, the first test of any season has the roughest edges. Maybe that will be enough for Ireland to sneak through for that long-awaited victory.
We will now just have to wait and see whether this prediction was caused by kissing the Blarney stone some time back or whether the inevitable result surfaces once again. For the sake of the new selection panel, you'd have to hope for the latter.
Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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