high achievers
Kiwi World Cup doubt lies just under the skin, if Ireland can dig in
Even with three World Cups to their name, New Zealand’s past in the tournament is a painful one.

‘WHAT’S THE MATTER, Dan, your Jockey shorts too toight?’

Their frosted tips look natural, they quite possibly popped up as an extra in Bonza Burger a few times and as they cavort their bro-ey way you suspect they surely had a Jake, a Kane, Brock or Nathan in their ranks. Definitely a few Scottys.

A ribbing from the neighbours always cuts deftly right to the bone and it’s the wont of  Australian rugby union fans in Auckland to make their sledging sting.

It’s 2011 and New Zealand are still chasing that holy grail of a second World Cup. Since the inaugural tournament they have fallen at semi, quarter and final hurdles. Their near and dear neighbours certainly aren’t rooting for them to bridge the gap with another tournament on home soil.

The repeated tales of what they roared at Dan Carter sum it up. Perhaps the most gifted player to grace the game now laid low by groin injury and the Aussies are there waiting to check whether the issue is connected to his underwear ads that adorn the city skyline.

australian-fans Anonymous Australian fans who are in no way connected to this story.

The black t-shirts allow the Straya faithful to blend in for a time, but a closer look and the white illustration becomes clear. Two white palms tangle up towards the neck-line with the inscription:  ‘Chokers — 91, 95, 99, 03, 07 and 2011′.

Much like Ireland’s quarter-final travails, there’s a reason and a story that makes each unsuccessful attempt unique and unconnected. But when they add up, the Aussie bros in Auckland are hard to argue with.

On the field, Australia’s delight in New Zealand’s drought was exemplified by George Gregan borrowing the US presidential race chant ‘four more years’ in the closing stages of the 2003 semi-final as Byron Kelleher picked himself off the floor. The great Wallaby 9 looked like he was finally sick of being reminded of his words when TVNZ put it to him 12 years later as the All Blacks celebrated their back-to-back success in London.

“I hear it all the time. It’s quite original,” Gregan snarled before pulling the nice-guy face back on for the camera, “using my material to me!”

Gregan kept hearing it back, because Australians had so successfully hit their target when berating their ‘little brother’ nation. The Kiwi sibling is always supposed to be the more talented rugby exponent, but it was Australia who proved themselves mentally tougher in semi-final battles on Lansdowne Road in 1991 and in Sydney in 2003.

In between there was no respite for New Zealand to flourish without the green and gold shadow cast from across the Tasman. A truly great All Black side was brought low by South Africa in the 1995 final and they were left to face the ‘Boks again in the 1999 third place play-off after falling to France.

Les Bleus accounted for the All Blacks again in a cauldron of an atmosphere in Cardiff in 2007.

And that is the last time Steve Hansen’s side lost a World Cup fixture.

So as Ireland face into a knockout round match against the back-to-back World Champions those days of the choker tag on the black jerseys feels an awfully long time ago. A long time since they had to endure the pit-in-the-stomach sense of falling short of where they felt they belonged in the pecking order. But it’s not.

Throughout the World Cup era, New Zealand were not just some theoretical traditional standard-bearers in rugby, the All Blacks have been the best team in the world since 2004. Yet even with home comfort, 2011 was far from a procession and the injury to Carter was followed by another for Colin Slade and then, in the final, a knee injury took down 22-year-old Aaron Cruden.

They had to battle, sneak and squeak over the line with Stephen Donald wearing an ill-fitting jersey and slotting a penalty that many still argue didn’t go between the posts.

the-all-blacks-celebrate-the-final-whistle Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Doubt remained, it had to, until that sensational 2015 final in Twickenham. They finally had Carter in full fluid motion and Richie McCaw eking the last efforts from his body. And, as they finally toppled their abusive older sibling, they could truly celebrate.

From a trouncing of France, in Cardiff of all places, to grinding it out against the Springboks in the semi 2015 was a pinnacle of Steve Hansen’s now 15-year stint as an All Black coach. Their third World Cup was a first claimed on foreign soil and the first time they finished the marquee tournament showing off the style of rugby that makes them red-hot favourites in the three years between tournaments.

Having gone into the tournament with a lofty ranking of their own, Ireland must feel they have a balance to redress on the big stage of the World Cup.

Taking down the Kiwis as a counterweight, bringing back all those bitter memories of Australian schadenfreude, would be a hell of a way to finally make their mark.

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