Two years ago, Ireland came desperately close to securing the nation’s first ever Test match win over New Zealand. Donncha O’Callaghan played in both of the 2006 tour games against the All Blacks and believes the squad are now better placed to thrive in those tight situations.
Ireland were just nine minutes away from victory when they met the All Blacks in Hamilton in June 2006. Then coached by Eddie O’Sullivan, the Irish led 16-8 at half-time and were also leading 23-15 before three Luke McAlister penalties and a late try from Troy Flavell saw the hosts claim a 34-23 victory.
In the second Test, a week later in Auckland, New Zealand shot out in front but Ireland dug deep to close the gap to 20-17 before they succumbed to a 27-17 defeat.
Those games proved just how crucial the final quarter of a Test match is. But should Ireland get themselves into a similar position – armed with a tight lead heading into the closing stages – in Wellington this Saturday, second row Donncha O’Callaghan is confident that they will be able to hold firm.
“If you ask any team, winning is kinda contagious, you get used to winning really close games. In the last 10 minutes, when you’ve been winning all season, you believe you can do it.
“That has happened to us a bit at Munster and hopefully we can carry it on into (this weekend’s game). There is a self belief now that we can win tight games,” he admitted.
“Hopefully, if Saturday is close, we might have the mental reserve where we didn’t before.
“You look back two years ago and with nine minutes to go we were two or three points up and you don’t get many opportunities like that against the All Blacks. You’ve got to take them when they come about.”
O’Callaghan is well used to playing both with and against New Zealand players. He played for Ireland against the All Blacks in 2005 and 2006 (twice), and twice for the British & Irish Lions against the All Blacks in 2005.
The Kiwi influence has increased at Munster in recent seasons with the likes of Mike Mullins, Christian Cullen, Jason Holland, Lifeimi Mafi, Rua Tipoki and Doug Howlett each making their mark with the province.
That link will be strengthened some more when Munster face the All Blacks at the redeveloped Thomond Park stadium in November.
O’Callaghan said: “There is a good link between Irish rugby and New Zealand with people playing here and there. You could say New Zealand have brought a new dimension to our game (at Munster).
“It feels like Lifemi has always been there but people have talked about him more now because of Rua’s arrival. Rua has taken him under his wing and the two of them have been brilliant.
“And Doug Howlett is world class. Usually with Munster we are used to playing against world class players and struggling and going: ‘we’d love to get a scorer like that.’
“Now we finally have one – you just give Doug the ball and he can do something. It’s brilliant.”
Focusing on Saturday’s game, the big Corkman is looking forward to locking horns with the All Blacks forwards, and in particular the second row pairing of Ali Williams and Brad Thorn.
“There’s huge respect there, we have always respected the All Blacks forwards. Other people might run their mouths off but we certainly wouldn’t.
“It’s going to be hugely tough. We haven’t seen a big amount of the Super 14 but with the Crusaders underway again and the huge amount of talent here.
“People go on about the amount of players who are leaving but you don’t know about the stream of new guys coming in. It’s a huge challenge for us but one we’re ready for.”