They’re away from home, at the end of their season, without Dan Carter. They squeaked home against France, and faded against England. They’ve played seven tests in nine weeks.
In the past few months they have flown back and forth to Australia, Argentina, South Africa and Japan, before facing the best teams in Europe. They must be homesick and tenderised and weary, and yet, on Sunday lots of people will be backing them to beat the 20-point spread. This feels more like the closing ceremony to New Zealand’s unbeaten season than an actual sporting contest.
When Irish players are asked if they believe they can beat the world’s best team, they hint that if New Zealand have an off-day and we produce our best performance ever, then we could win. Not quite defeatist, but its not exactly Steve Collins pre the Eubank bout.
We say we won’t play the All Black myth, or have the history books in our heads as we walk onto the field, but the problem is the New Zealanders do. They believe it, they know the history, and they play like it.
Justin Marshall feels they perform with even more intensity against Ireland and Scotland than they do against France or England. The sheer embarrassment of losing to one of the Celtic nations would be too much to bear, to be the All Black that let that record go would be worse than losing to sides who do occasionally beat them.
The Spanish football team, in spite of their recent dominance, have had a few surprising defeats to Switzerland, USA and most recently, to South Africa. New Zealand never lose to the lower ranked nations, because they are never complacent.
There is nothing in team sports, over the last 100 years, to compare to the All Blacks. Sergey Bubka, Ed Moses and Schumacher all did it for a time in their respective sports, but at least you knew they’d eventually get old.
Ireland will have to face down the All Black’s Haka before kick-off. ©INPHO/Photosport/Andrew Cornaga.
Our record against the All Blacks is a scar on the game here, one that all the Heineken Cups in the world won’t erase. When Declan Kidney was in charge he used to say ‘we will beat them one day’. Well, the earth and the sun are getting closer all the time, so there is a time limit on it.
We have played better than them a few times, but something always gets in the way of victory. In Christchurch last year we were level with four minutes to go, we had a scrum in their half, our scrum was dominant throughout the 80 minutes, we shunted them back three yards, but Nigel Owens somehow gave a penalty to New Zealand.
John Giles spoke to us before about attempts to beat established nations in the 60′s and 70′s. Ireland often played well enough to win, but a victory was so unexpected that either the Irish would implode or the ref would hand it to the opposition. The refs, fans and players were conditioned to believe the team with the better history would win, and that’s a difficult thing to shake.
Alan Quinlan wrote a good article in The Irish Times this week about the mindset of Irish players in these New Zealand games. It requires a huge leap of imagination for them to believe they can win, and even when Ireland are playing well, the smallest of errors can shatter that confidence.
Paul O’Connell’s side start this one with no confidence at all, and the sense is the fans are going along to celebrate Kiwi genius and forget about the result.
There are a few reasons to believe we can win, though. Not since the 1990’s have we been so thoroughly written off. Dan Carter and Tony Woodcock are out. Joe Schmidt’s game-plan has had another week to germinate.
It’s their last game of an unbeaten season. They sometimes get food poisoning.