The historic victory in Dunedin is a collector’s item to enjoy
It is fitting that Ireland’s tour of New Zealand should end in Wellington next weekend, where the lesson ended 30 years ago.
It was the first graphic representation of the modern era, in which Ireland was far worse than worn out: we had no bums in our pants and New Zealand was perfect in the flush-cheeked business.
It was at the old Athletic Park, a comfortless, creaking stadium with the Millard stand, where it took nerves of steel and an oxygen tank to face its height and incline. To compensate, the dressing rooms were in the bowels of the grandstand with very little light and wooden floors that could have been salvaged from a coffin ship.
Irish coach Ciaran Fitzgerald was an army man who knew a thing or two about dealing with adversity. He could also make dead. On the previous trip there with the Lions in 1983, where he had been vilified as a captain struggling to hit his lineout targets, Fitzgerald was asked where the tourists were headed next after another disheartening loss.
“Tuesday after Gisbourne,” he replied.
But standing in front of the Irish dressing room after that second Test – New Zealand won 59-6 – Fitzgerald looked as if he had come from a wild weekend run on the Curragh, where ammunition had been live and rations lean.
“In general, I think Irish rugby is certainly staying further down the road than it was before we came out,” he said.
Ciaran Fizgerald had a crystal clear view of the snail’s pace at which the IRFU was moving. And only if they feel like exercising at all. He looked and sounded like he wanted to get on a plane. We all did. It was just the little thing, faxing reports home. Yes, it took a long time.
When a losing streak really picks up steam – in this case it goes back to 1976 when Ireland finished second in their first Test in New Zealand, again in Wellington – one imagines how it will end. Our favorite has always been the drop goal with the clock in overtime and two points down on the away team. However, once a tour has driven past First Test, you haven’t thought to drive down that street or any other in the same neighborhood.
The circadian rhythm of touring dictated that the window was open only for the first test. If you didn’t climb through, you got caught painfully closing. Many men in green would struggle to count on the fingers of both hands over the years.
In 2002, for example, Ireland were close for T1 in Dunedin, but Ronan O’Gara kicked the yellow, unserviceable adidas ball like he would kick a banana peel that had brought him down.
They were knocked out of goal for T2 in Auckland a week later, with Keith Gleeson the victim of a good game last weekend. We’ll always remember waiting for quotes in the corridor outside the dressing room as Keith Wood explained to his teammates in colorful language the thought process of the average Kiwis: Beat the All Blacks and you’ll get respect; lose and you don’t.
The years that followed saw a handful of respectable goalscorers up until 2012’s Hamilton Chainsaw Massacre, when replacing Paddy Wallace became living proof that turning on the phone when sunning yourself on holiday wasn’t always a good plan.
So the prospect of Ireland somehow looking home and being hosed down with half an hour to play under the roof in Dunedin yesterday was unthinkable. But a lot of what was considered acceptable in this game was just the way it was.
The template for winning a test in New Zealand has three headings: underdog has a forward; darling has a nightmare; The referee gives the former every possible leeway. Add it all up and you have the lucky numbers.
Box one was ticked last weekend with almost a copy of Eden Park’s intro. It wasn’t perfect but as the game developed it was clear that Ireland were in their comfort zone in the scrum which was a big factor in his mental wellbeing.
They achieved positive results in terms of the pace and accuracy of their game in which Dan Sheehan, Caelan Doris and the standout Tadhg Beirne delivered great plays. Johnny Sexton’s front-door/back-door choice was key in advancing Ireland further.
It took a while for box two to be red flagged but the home side were unsettled that Ireland had started so well for two straight weeks, compounded by their own inability to string together enough continuous rugby to find a way back into the game to find.
Box number three with Jaco Peyper at the wheel was blurred. Elsewhere on these pages we look at the safety of all of this, but two incidents involving no risk to life kept New Zealand in the game.
The first featured the elusive decision – taken in conjunction with Peyper’s assistants and TMO – not to award a penalty attempt after Garry Ringrose was closed without the ball just as Sexton set him up with a try-scoring pass. Ireland’s use of the short side had paid off handsomely and this one had a bumper look.
For New Zealand, Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s yellow card was cheap at price. A 17-0 lead against 13 men would have been a big contribution to Ireland’s success. Listening to the reasons for not awarding the penalty try was like describing a near miss in the fast lane of the Autobahn as harmless, so keep driving.
The second was the Get Out of Jail card gift wrapped for Sam Cane. The All Black captain was under pressure for his place in this series. He was average on the field until instinct kicked in, five yards from his own line, and his team was reduced to 13 after Angus Ta’avao was sent off.
They had already been used successfully in November 2016, the week after Ireland’s victory at Soldier Field, when he concussed Robbie Henshaw with a high shot that drew no sanction from the referee – who happened to be Jaco Peyper.
This time he jumped in the back of an Irish ruck while offside, only to end the chance of a quick penalty that threatened Ireland in an advantage play. Either Peyper’s years of experience and Nous left him and he didn’t see this was a professional foul and a 10-minute layoff, or he filled it, perhaps fearing the podium for a record frenzy of cards in a Tier 1 test to surpass fit.
That added to the nervousness that Ireland was going through at the time. The pressure of trying to score is different than the heat of stopping a goal. Most would choose the latter if forced to choose. It doesn’t require the same patience and clear head. Ireland forgot rugby which put them ahead in a mad rush to get over the line before the All Blacks could retrieve a man from the ton.
Bundee Aki’s arrival for Ringrose made the obvious even more appealing: forcing New Zealand to defend in the middle to open doors to the outside. Andrew Porter’s two attempts illustrated the effect of muscle approximation. He was wrongly called for a scrum penalty early in the game that could have melted his head. So you can imagine the endorphin rush will carry him all the way to Wellington.
This flight back to the North Island will be unique for Irish tourists: you will fly to the last of three fences while the race is still alive and open. There are so many in this Irish tour group that they will hardly make the journey in a fleet of small commuter planes that make this country so beautiful from the air.
Your first glimpse of the Southern Alps, the mountain range that runs down the ridge of the South Island, is magical. Arriving was always a literal coming down. Not this time. Through a series of somewhat bizarre circumstances, Ireland was offered the code to unlock a safe that we feared we would never see. Did they fiddle around a bit when entering the digits? Yes. Given our history in New Zealand, who wouldn’t have gone through the same stress for a heartbeat?
In 1992, like today, it was the Steinlager series, the brew that dominated the beer-drinking society in this country. Back then, TV ads told you, whatever else was going on, “Relax and have a Steiny!”
It became an issue for some of us covering this trip. No matter how bad things got on the field, we all joined in with the jingle and grabbed a beer. An hour after the final whistle yesterday, a well-travelled snapper sent a picture to our then unknown mobile phone. Taken just a few minutes earlier, it showed his fat hand wrapped around a bottle of the sponsor’s brew. It’s unlikely to garner any awards, but it’s a collector’s item nonetheless.