After a Jonah Lomu-inspired comeback guided the All Blacks to their 13th victory over Ireland in November 2001, then New Zealand head coach John Mitchell commented: “That was a great stepping stone in a lot of the boys’ careers.”
John Mitchell’s side had three Test debutants on the pitch that day as they came from 21-7 down to dash Ireland’s hopes of a first ever win over New Zealand.
One of those newcomers was flanker Richie McCaw, who is now well-established as captain of the All Blacks.
“I remember a bit,” said McCaw, recalling that 40-29 victory at the old Lansdowne Road.
“I wanted to make sure and prove that I deserved to be there. It was a pretty awesome experience to run out for the first time in a Test match, and at a place like Lansdowne Road was pretty special.
“So I’ve got pretty good memories of it,” admitted the man-of-the-match from that day.
The current crop of All Blacks boasts players of the calibre of Dan Carter, Mils Muliaina, Tony Woodcock, McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams who has impressed at centre in recent wins over England and Scotland.
But the 2001 team was far from its poor cousin with the likes of Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens and Anton Oliver, as captain, pulling the strings.
“I thought this is a horrible way to start Test rugby,” added McCaw, as he rememberd how the All Blacks fell 14 points behind to Ireland.
“I remember it was the first time I got to play with a guy like Jonah (Lomu) and some of those guys – that was pretty special in itself.
“You can stand there in awe or just get on with it. I was pretty nervous, but once you run out on the field you either get into it or freeze up and I did every attempt I didn’t do the latter.
“I remember being pretty happy at the end that we got away with a win.”
McCaw has thus far repressed any urge to leave New Zealand for a move to European club rugby, and donning the All Blacks jersey certainly holds that something special for him.
“It’s a little bit different,” he says of the feelings now, in comparison to when he first wore the national jersey.
“But I still love the contest and love the fact you are playing for the All Blacks. If that ever goes, then it is probably time to do something else. Instead of worrying about your own job you are making sure the whole team does well.
“Those are probably the nerves you have at times. I still make sure not to take for granted the fact that I am playing for the All Blacks because one day that will be gone and you don’t just want to appreciate it then.”
Ireland conceded three penalties in McCaw’s first 80 minutes of international rugby – none of which were in their own half. That same discipline will be required come Saturday evening, as well as Ireland’s big players stepping up to the challenge.
“I think when we look at the Irish team, there are a lot of guys that have been through those periods (winning a Grand Slam in 2009 and the Triple Crowns) and they are still playing good rugby – no doubt,” explained the Canterbury and Crusaders forward.
“Especially those guys in the backs, (Ronan) O’Gara, (Gordon) D’Arcy and (Brian) O’Driscoll – they have played a lot of rugby and they are pretty classy.
“In the second half when we played in New Zealand in June, we started to give them a bit of an easy ride and they certainly made us pay for it. Preparing for this week we realised that if we do that again, we are going to be in trouble.”
After beating England, scrum half Jimmy Cowan stated the All Blacks had to move up a gear. A week later, they gave Scotland a humbling in the form of a record 49-3 defeat.
“We have to make sure we are better than last week,” agreed McCaw, as he attempts to maintain the All Blacks’ unbeaten record (22 wins, 1 draw and 0 defeats) against Ireland.
The first All Blacks captain to lose to Ireland is not an accolade the two-time IRB World Player of the Year wishes to add to his collection. “I don’t want to be. End of story.”
Especially as Saturday’s match will see both McCaw and full-back Muliaina eclipse former captain Sean Fitzpatrick’s long-standing New Zealand caps record of 92 Tests.