IRELAND ARE, INCREASINGLY, big in New Zealand.
The Kiwis are rightly renowned as world leaders in rugby, the ones the rest of us should be learning from, but Ireland’s success under Joe Schmidt has made them a nation for others in the game to study in depth.
A Grand Slam, a series success in Australia, a November clean sweep last year, as well as two other Six Nations titles during Schmidt’s tenure – this Irish squad has earned respect everywhere.
Even in New Zealand, where some players have previously found it difficult to name Irish players, there is a curiosity about what’s going on under Schmidt.
Ireland’s scrum coach Greg Feek, a former All Black and now also an assistant coach for Japanese club NEC Green Rockets, has seen the evidence of the change first-hand.
“10 or 15 years ago Ireland were always the sort of team that could beat somebody big – do you know what I mean? – they always had the potential but now that potential has come through and it’s a ‘watch out’ type of thing,” says Feek.
‘There’s definitely a massive shift even to the point where I get asked… like 10 or 15 years ago, they wouldn’t have known too many Irish players.
“Now, if I’m there [in New Zealand], they’re constantly asking me, ‘What’s he like?’ or ‘What does he lift?’ or ‘What does he do?’
“People are asking what’s this ‘player management programme,’ why is that so good or why is this so good? How do you manage this?
“It’s not just the threat of winning; guys want to come into [Ireland's] camp and watch and learn.
“I think that’s maybe the biggest change as well; they’re learning off what we’re doing.”
Feek himself has visited other rugby teams and sporting organisations but Ireland deal with plenty of requests from coaches to visit their environment in a learning capacity.
Indeed, their guests over the years include the current All Blacks defence coach Scott McLeod and Japan’s assistant coach Tony Brown – who once turned down the Leinster job.
“We’ve had rugby league, we’ve had Gaelic and other rugby teams,” said Feek. “I remember Scott McLeod and Tony Brown were in here a couple of years ago. There’s always people asking as well.
“We’ve had to deter a couple of guys because they’re maybe a bit close to the opposition and things like that, but you always get asked. I know Joes gets inundated but it probably reflects a little bit of how we’re going.”
In terms of the Irish players that Kiwis tend to ask about most, Feek points to Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose, as well as Sean O’Brien, who is set for his Ireland return against Argentina this weekend.
“Richie McCaw was asked who in the world would he choose to play alongside and I think he mentioned Seanie a few years ago,” says Feek.
Another new name to add to the list is that of Jordan Larmour, whose ever-growing highlights reel has made it down to New Zealand.
The 21-year-old still has much to learn but already he is earning lofty comparisons to the likes of Christian Cullen.
Having emerged into New Zealand rugby alongside Cullen himself, Feek is well placed to judge whether there is a likeness between Larmour and the All Blacks legend.
“I came through the age grades with Christian Cullen and Carlos Spencer and guys like that,” says Feek.
“I suppose it is stating the obvious when you see someone like that, but the only other person who has footwork like that and can do things like that that I can remember would be someone like that, a Carlos or Christian Cullen.
“Cully had more of a glide to how he did things, I suppose Jordan is probably a bit quicker in short spaces. I think one of the boys was calling him ‘Phone Booth’ and ‘Phone Box’ and those sorts of nicknames the other day.
“He has a lot of energy about him and that shows. When he get the ball he has just got so much energy.
“Mind you, I’d say Tadhg Furlong would say he would still be able to have a go at him.”
- Originally published at 06.00
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