I was there… for Ireland’s brutal tour of New Zealand

Patrick McCarry was our man embedded with Declan Kidney’s squad as they came so close yet so far away last summer.

The Irish team face the haka.
The Irish team face the haka.
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland

FOR THE SECOND time in nine months I was in New Zealand and rugby was afoot. Ireland travelled 20,000 kilometres and left some hefty baggage behind, most notably Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris.

The first test at Eden Park was the All Blacks first match since winning the 2011 World Cup and an exhibition was expected.

Ireland started with brutal intent as Donnacha Ryan, Cian Healy and Rory Best ram-raided anything black and moving. The tussle lasted for 25 minutes before Julian Savea scored his first try. Just over an hour later and the Irish players trudged off as the scoreboard read 42-10.

Christchurch and the AMI Stadium [Rugby League Park] was the setting for the second test. Four changes were made in the Ireland XV but not many in the 21,000 seat makeshift stadium fancied them to worry a charged New Zealand team playing in the city for the first time since it was struck by a series of devastating earthquakes in early 2011. By the end of the match the All Blacks had been well and truly rattled.

12 minutes in and Conor Murray, with a great snipe, had scored his first international try. Jonathan Sexton stretched the lead but Dan Carter scores made it 10-9 at the break. Within five minutes of the restart Aaron Smith had scored his try AB try and the jig looked up. Ireland refused to be cowed, however, and what followed was an immensely gripping 30-minute spell.

The Irish battled back and the much revered All Black front row was starting to quiver and Sean O’Brien was in his element. Sexton’s two penalties made it 19-19 and, with eight minutes to go, Israel Dagg was sent to the sin bin for a high tackle on Rob Kearney. Sexton lined up a penalty from the halfway line that would give Ireland the lead, as well as the man advantage. The kick dropped two yards short.

It was as close as Ireland would get.

Mike Ross was harshly adjudged to have knocked on just outside the All Black 22 and the home side, led by that magnificent bastard Richie McCaw, heaved upfield. Dan Carter got two bites at the drop goal cherry before driving a kick through the posts and a stake through our dreams.

The Kiwis were relieved but they knew they were second best. Players like O’Brien, Kevin McLaughlin, Gordon D’Arcy, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip deserved to go into the history books as winners that bracing night in Christchurch but I was proud to be there as they came so damnably close.

I wish I was there…

AS A MASSIVE football fan, it was a wrench for me to miss out on the build-up, wishful thinking and action of Euro 2012. I was on the Irish rugby beat in New Zealand and only returned for the semi-finals and final. By the time I got back, Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland were  a half-cracked dot on the landscape and Damien Duff had retired.

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It wasn’t so much the anticipation of watching Ireland spew their Sunday football brand of footballing cough syrup all over the Euros, it was the period of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ that I missed.

The inclusion of James McClean in the squad, and memories of Richard Dunne in Russia and Simon Cox’s goal against the Czech Republic, gave me hope that we could give knock-out qualification a real dart.

Simon Cox ‘megs Peter Cech. (©INPHO/Eddie Lennon)

The draw was pretty cruel but, after the initial shock, I like many others felt we could escape if we beat Croatia and cobble a point or two out of the next two games. The common/optimistic consensus in Ireland was that Croatia were not all they were hyped up to be.

I remember The Sun ran a front page of Slaven Bilic’s head super imposed onto a cabbage [I think] for making the audacious claim that Croatia were targeting us for three points. The nerve of him!

As it turned out, the tournament was tough to watch from an Irish perspective. Watching at 5 and 6am from New Zealand, I was fooled by the whistle for Sean St Ledger’s goal, fell asleep after Spain went 3-0 up. I was in a hostel in Queenstown as Italy delivered the final boot. I did not mind missing that but I was envious of missing the tournament countdown as tricolour camper vans set off for Poland and the country chuckled at the ’3′ adverts with Gio celebrating as some accountant got himself a date.

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