When Ireland face into the cauldron of a Rugby World Cup quarter-final with New Zealand at Tokyo Stadium on Saturday, they will be aiming to record a third victory out of four against Steve Hansen’s formidable outfit.
Following a previous run of 28 unsuccessful attempts, an Ireland senior men’s team finally had the measure of their All Blacks counterparts at Soldier’s Field in Chicago in November 2016.
This was a historic triumph for Joe Schmidt’s charges, and while the southern Hemisphere giants got their revenge at the Aviva Stadium two weeks later, Ireland produced an outstanding display to overcome the reigning World Cup champions in the same venue last November.
They are, of course, not the only international side from these shores to claim the scalp of New Zealand. At the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup in France, a Niamh Briggs and Alison Miller-inspired Ireland claimed a superb 17-14 pool win over the Black Ferns – their first defeat at the tournament in 23 years.
This was followed two years later by a 33-24 success for the Ireland Under-20s over New Zealand at the World Rugby U-20 Championship in England. Nigel Carolan’s young guns subsequently progressed to the final where the host nation ultimately came out on top.
Despite a disappointing finish, the competition served as a launchpad for current Ireland senior stars Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Andrew Porter. Also included amongst this multi-talented squad was current Ballynahinch ace Conall Boomer.
The versatile young forward was forced to watch on from the sidelines as the Ireland U-20s defied the odds that day, but he nevertheless admits it was the highlight of his time in the underage set-up.
“Sitting on the sideline wasn’t too good, but the buzz about the place the day we beat New Zealand was phenomenal. Not being involved in it up front, being in the side was crazy,” he admitted.
“You’re the first (Ireland) men’s team to beat New Zealand and after no one could really believe what happened. Wales was a tough first match, but nobody was saying, ‘aw, crap it’s New Zealand’. Everyone was going, ‘right, we’re going to beat them here’.
“Now, (wet weather) conditions the New Zealand boys might complain about, but we were in a neutral venue. Bill Johnston popped his shoulder and Johnny McPhillips came in, so we were tested as well.”
When you consider the previous domination of New Zealand in the fixture, there was no lack of motivation within the Ireland U-20 camp. Yet, there is always room for some extra incentive and team manager Hendrik Kruger was on hand to provide it.
“Hendrik said before the match that if we beat New Zealand he’d take us for a steak dinner. I don’t think he really thought it through. It was the best steak dinner I’ve had in my life. I don’t think the boys in the restaurant were too pleased when we all walked in – especially seeing Andrew Porter!
“You had a (credit) card with a wee red sticker if you’d finished and a green sticker to keep going. The green was kept on. We had our celebrations that night, but we were quickly brought to earth the next day, ‘the show must go on’ kinda thing.
“There was more pressure on the Argentina one, because an Ireland (Under-20) team hadn’t been past the semi-final. England then in the final were unbelievable. Great experience for all of us, even if we weren’t playing. You take a lot from it.”
Boomer’s lack of game-time at that year’s World Rugby U-20 Championship – Ireland’s final pool encounter against Georgia was his sole appearance in the tournament – is perhaps unsurprising, given he was drafted into the squad as injury cover for Leinster’s Will Connors.
Before then, Boomer had spent a year in Australia playing for the Western Force’s U-20 side. Having placed the professional game on the back burner, he is now a permanent resident in the Ballynahinch back row as they seek to adapt to life in Division 1A of the Energia All-Ireland League.
It has been a frustrating return to top flight action so far for the County Down outfit, with back-to-back defeats already leaving them in a lowly position ahead of UCD’s trip to Ballymacarn Park on Saturday afternoon (kick-off 2.30pm).
With the bulk of their squad more accustomed to the lower tiers of domestic rugby, Boomer acknowledges it will be a steep learning curve for ‘Hinch.
“We got off to a bit of a shaky start this season, Ulster league-wise. There’s a few injuries. We had four concussions in three games, so we’re struggling a bit for numbers. I think only five or six of us have played 1A, a lot of us have something new to take on board. Just the sheer size of players is a shock.
“We wouldn’t be the biggest and let’s say one person gets injured, we don’t have another big heavy man to come in. We’ll be fine. I think it might take us a few games to get used to what (level) we have to stay at. Even training, because if we’re going on training matches at the minute we’ll be straight back to 1B.”
Steering Ballynahinch’s passage through Division 1A is the vastly-experienced Brian McLaughlin, who guided Ulster to the Heineken Cup final in 2012. Having also served as skills coach during Eddie O’Sullivan’s tenure with Ireland, McLaughlin brings a wealth of rugby knowledge to the table at Ballymacarn Park.
“If you’re playing crap, he’ll tell you you’re playing crap. Which some players like, others don’t,” Boomer said of Ballynahinch boss McLaughlin.
“He’s a very passionate man about his rugby. I’d say he doesn’t get much sleep on a Saturday if we lose a game. At times he does get frustrated because he’s fine-tuned on every detail, and if it doesn’t go right he’s very vocal about it. That drives us on to be better players.
“There’s a lot of rucking and a lot of breakdown work. He brings his old school ways about it too. Hard up-front rugby. We’d like to play fancy rugby and keep the ball alive. It works sometimes, but he’ll say, ‘stick it up the jumper and go for it’. When we do that, we win matches. He’s a very good coach.”