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'We genuinely believe if we can get our stuff right that we can beat whoever we play'

Ireland have yet to defeat the All Blacks on New Zealand soil but there is belief within the squad that they can do so on this tour.

Ireland celebrate their win last November.
Ireland celebrate their win last November.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THERE WAS A time when Irish trips to New Zealand brought the same level of optimism as the Titanic’s attempt to win its collision with the iceberg.

Twelve times they have played the All Blacks down here, 12 times they have lost. To give them some credit, at least they’ve shown consistency.

This time may be different. New Zealand, for a start, are in transition; their coaching staff and playing squad have been struck by covid and injuries this week; their aura has slipped since 2018. Check out their record against Ireland for evidence: three of the last five meetings between these sides have ended in Irish victories, the latest chapters in the changing story of how Irish rugby is perceived.

No win in Paris since 1972 – Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick in 2000 ended that run of misery.

No win over Australia since 1979 – that particular box was ticked in 2002 and Ireland have gone on to win five of the last seven meetings.

No win over the Springboks since 1965 – that sequence came to an end in 2004. It’s 5-4 to Ireland from nine encounters in the years since.

A picture is emerging here of a team growing in confidence. Even when the names on the team sheet changed; the results didn’t. A grand slam in 2009 was the first since 1948. That team grew old, a new one replaced it. And still the history books kept being rewritten.

Back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015 was another first; a win over the All Blacks in 2016 a further moment of history; so too was their victory away to South Africa that year.

josh-van-der-flier-celebrates-winning Van der Flier celebrates the 2016 win in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Then came 2018: another grand slam, a first series win in Australia since 1979, a first win over New Zealand on Irish soil.

When this little history lesson was replayed to Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier earlier today, you could sense their interest growing. “There’s only one way to look at this,” van der Flier said.

“Coming to their backyard, you want to do something special by winning here. Is it 28 years since they have been beaten in Eden Park?”

It is. Plenty have tried, all have failed: the British and Irish Lions, the Springboks, Wallabies, France, Ireland. For outsiders Eden Park is regarded as an intimidating venue, a special place, a rugby mecca.

Yet there was an interesting article in today’s New Zealand Herald, one that addressed Eden Park’s shortcomings, how its stands were a bit meh, too modern to be considered quaint, too old to be regarded as state of the art. By all accounts, the surrounding residents aren’t mad about the presence of the arena outside their backyard, either. Loved, it apparently isn’t the way Croke Park or the Aviva is at home.

But this nation does still love their All Blacks. And the side love playing here. The French were the last side to win at this venue and that was so long ago that rugby was still an amateur sport. But what relevance does history really have in the here and now?

What can Doris, a Mayo-man, do about the past? Neither he, nor van der Flier, can afford to get too hung up about a Springbok, Wallaby or English defeat here in the 2000s and 1990s because, well, the past that is a different country.

“All we can think about is us,” said Doris, who will start as Ireland’s No8 on Saturday. “There is huge belief in what we, as players, are hoping to do. Your question (about the disappearance of an inferiority complex in Irish rugby) is interesting. We genuinely believe if we can get our stuff right that we can beat whoever we play on the day.”

irelands-caelan-doris-during-the-training Caelan Doris at today's training game.

That has been seen in the last 15 months: England (twice), New Zealand, Argentina, Japan, Wales, Scotland have all been defeated – three of the four semi-finalists from the 2019 World Cup are included on that list.

It doesn’t make Ireland favourites for Saturday. They’re not. Nor should they be. Looking at this rationally, looking at the New Zealand starting XV, the side you expect to win Saturday is the All Blacks. They have won 84 per cent of their Tests in Eden Park; they have not lost a series at home since 1994, have only lost four home series full stop since records began.

Their team has some flaws but very few. Look at their pack, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have 224 Test caps between them; Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane have skills that complement one another even if Barrett is playing at six for the first time since 2019. “Well, he wore that number on his back when he faced us in the World Cup and we all know what happened then,” said Farrell.

The Lancastrian is a realist. He appreciates that the task ahead of him on Saturday is huge but yet he manages to walk the tightrope between showing respect rather than fear, doing his bit, with his broad Wigan accent, to make hope and history rhyme.

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“They have one or two injuries but they could pick four teams in New Zealand and all four would be unbelievably hard to play against,” said the Ireland coach, “so we are under no illusions about what we are up against at the weekend. Any type of performance that got us over the line before, that won’t do this weekend.”

Van der Flier sang from the same hymnsheet: “We need to be better than we were last November,” said the Leinster flanker. “I think we can be, too. The way we train – there is a lot of unstructured stuff. There is a lot of variation to what we do.”

His confidence is not misplaced. Five times van der Flier has faced New Zealand in his career; three times he has won against them. “My mindset is to be excited by this kind of thing; we are competitive people, it is probably why we choose to do this for our living.

“You want to play in hard games. The more of a challenge it is, the better. Playing New Zealand in New Zealand is where you want to do it. This is where we want to be.”

Speaking a little earlier, from the exact same chair in North Harbour stadium, Farrell effectively made the same point. “We’ve confidence,” he said, “but while everyone knows what it would mean to us (to be the first Irish team to win here), you need several things to go right to make it happen.

“That means learning your detail and having a full ownership of what the detail is all about and mixing that with the right emotions. You put the package together, you hope the opposition will have a bit of an off day and you know you may have to be adaptable because in international rugby, things do not always go your way.”

We only have to look at the record books to realise that.

“History does not lie, does it?” asked Farrell.

No. Even so it is there to be changed.

About the author:

Garry Doyle  / reports from Auckland

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