It has been the season with no end it seems as the players head off to New Zealand for the most demanding tour available on the planet, writes our regular correspondent Adrian O’Farrell.
They do so with the whiff of disappointment in their collective nostrils as the final match of the season for each of Munster, Leinster and Ulster ended up in pretty serious defeats.
As against that, for Leinster and Ulster at least, it has been a successful season in overall terms so there is a level of underlying confidence that will filter through. This is a pretty good disposition to be in as there is nothing like disappointment to focus the mind, layered on top of an inner confidence.
They also do so without two of their most influential players in Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris. Watching Neil Francis and Matt Williams on Setanta Sports’ ‘The Breakdown’ show last week, it was interesting to get Franno’s perspective on experimental selections that are frequently called for as Declan Kidney is accused of conservatism.
In his own droll way he said there was no substitute for experience as he recalled the look of total fear in a debutant’s eyes and the clear look of, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here!’
It takes time for players to become comfortable with what they are doing at the top level and you certainly don’t want to be taking to the field against the All Blacks with up to a third of your team feeling their way in the Test arena.
While the season may seem interminable, having commenced pre-season for the World Cup in July of last year, this is when we see the benefit of the IRFU player management system as few, if any, players have played over 25 matches throughout the season. So, remarkably, fatigue should not be the issue most of us would expect it to be.
Rather, I think the squad will view this as the ultimate shot at immortality for an Irish rugby player. And thanks to the Munster team of 1978 it’s not like they don’t have a picture in their heads of what their place in history would look like.
For the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble and Donncha O’Callaghan they know precisely what this would mean.
And those same players know that the ultimate victory has been within reach before but has remained tantalisingly beyond their grasp.
In June 2006, Ireland played New Zealand in Waikato and went down by 11 points. On a night when there was an outbreak of food poisoning in the hospitality areas, the ‘prawn sandwich’ brigade only felt half as sick as the Ireland players who knew this was one that got away.
This was the night of the infamous ‘yellow ball’ which was an absolute pudding that O’Gara never got to grips with. This was compounded when Luke McAllister broke his tackle to score the crucial try. The following week we lost by just 10 points in another close match but despite the narrower margin our performance wasn’t as strong.
History would generally hold that our best chance of a win comes in the first match against them as there have been a few real turkeys after decent first match efforts, such as in 1992 when a Vinny Cunningham-inspired Ireland lost by just three points in Dunedin before being tanked 59-6 a week later in Wellington. Heaven knows what a third Test that year might have yielded.
The absence of Ferris is an undoubted loss as he has the physical presence to make the All Blacks take notice. However, Kevin McLaughlin was outstanding in the Heineken Cup final and the blindside will be an interesting battle now between himself, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony.
The crumb of good news here is that Jerome Kaino is missing for the Kiwis as he starts his career in Japan. Blindside looks set to be contested between Adam Thomson and Victor Vito,with the pair looking to start alongside the exceptional Kieran Read and Richie McCaw.
O’Connell will also be missed as he is a leader and just a really good all-round forward. In many respects his absence from the front five is likely to be more keenly felt as there really isn’t a ‘like for like’ replacement. The starting line-up in the second row is likely to be O’Callaghan and Ryan, but I wouldn’t rule out McLaughlin getting a game in the engine room before the tour is out.
The only really scary prospect concerns the scrum. Novenas for the health of Mike Ross’ hamstring are being said all around the country as I write.
In the absence of Tom Court, our options for Cian Healy and Ross are three uncapped players in Brett Wilkinson, Declan Fitzpatrick and Ronan Loughney. Baptism of fire springs to mind.
The scrum has become an increasingly important factor in determining matches and if we come apart here we are in for a horrible experience.
The other key is our ability to upset the All Blacks’ rhythm. If we cannot get at them at the breakdown then we are also in for a horrible experience.
The last three defeats to the ABs have been characterised by unending sequences of Blacks retaining the ball until the opening eventually appears. This equates to death by a thousand cuts and means that overall we will be ritually disembowelled.
The All Blacks aren’t especially big and haven’t been for many years now. For instance, Richie McCaw is not that physically imposing at all. He sees himself principally as a 400 metre runner who is prepared to sacrifice a bit of weight in the interests of being able to get to the breakdown first. ‘It doesn’t matter how strong I am if I’m not there, does it?’, he once said to Alan Lewis.
Key decisions are going to have to be made around the numbers we commit to the breakdown. This is a tricky balancing act between protecting your fringe and midfield defence through having numbers and ensuring that the Blacks’ ball is slowed down at source.
Ideally, of course we will counter-ruck to win turnover ball. However, while the northern Hemisphere tends to focus on set pieces, the southern Hemisphere tends to focus on the breakdown so it’s debatable as to how much change we will get here.
Certainly we found it difficult to get at them in our last outing against them at the Aviva Stadium in November 2010 when, despite playing a lot of good rugby, we conceded three tries between the 39th and 49th minutes in a 38-18 defeat.
Declan Kidney is certainly making the right noises and demonstrating real enthusiasm for the somewhat daunting opportunity, pointing out that it will be twelve years before another Ireland team gets this chance. “For some of us it will be the only time we tour New Zealand in our careers,” he said.
He went on to point out that there are only six matches against the big three southern Hemisphere teams between this tour and the next World Cup. And he is right to point out how important it is to be playing these teams.
But as he says, ‘It’s brilliant. It’s like bungee jumping’. Ain’t that the truth? Let’s just hope Richie McCaw isn’t standing on the platform with a sharp knife.