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Ireland eager to mix it with rugby's big boys in 2014

We spoke to Paul O’Connell, Jean de Villiers, Kieran Read and David Wallace about rugby’s top two.

New Zealand's players peform a haka against South Africa during their Rugby Championship match at Ellis Park Stadium.
New Zealand's players peform a haka against South Africa during their Rugby Championship match at Ellis Park Stadium.
Image: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe

SOUTH AFRICA AND New Zealand played 27 Tests in 2013 and won 25. The Springboks let the sides down by losing twice… to New Zealand.

Never in the professional era have two countries been so dominant over the course of a year. However, with Australia clicking into gear under Ewen McKenzie and the Six Nations throwing up four teams with championship ambitions, will 2014 be the year that the Boks and ABs are reeled in?

South Africa captain Jean de Villiers believes the rankings, which have New Zealand and South Africa well clear of the chasing pack, do not lie. De Villiers’ team beat Scotland and Wales comfortably last month before grinding to an away win over France. “With France,” he explained, “it is always about winning the game rather than playing expansive rugby.”

The Springboks were forced into a game of expansive, running rugby against New Zealand earlier this year as they faced their southern hemisphere rivals in the decider of The Rugby Championship. Playing at a sold-out Ellis Park, the Boks needed to beat the All Blacks and score four tries in the process to claim the title. The result was a nine-try thriller the visitors clinched 38-27 in the Test match of the year.

YouTube credit: GlobalRugby

“It was quite a spectacular game,” said de Villiers. “There was lots to be proud of that day but, of course, we were not happy with the result. It was a great advertisement for rugby. If you were watching the game at home, it would have energised you to go play the game.”

Another match that surely ranks as one of 2013′s best was the All Blacks’ last-gasp win over Ireland in November — the game that ensured Steve Hansen’s men finished with 15 wins from 15. De Villiers commented, “I watched the second-half live and, I must say, I felt terrible for the Irish team. I sent Paul O’Connell a text message after and told him I was gutted for them. They had the opportunity to seal it with the [Jonathan Sexton] penalty but couldn’t do it.

“It shows the class and quality of the New Zealand team, the fact that they found the resolve to keep going. that’s rugby though. It should not have to come down to a kick like that but it so often does.”

Three days before New Zealand edged Ireland out at the Lansdowne Road nerve-shredder, IRB world player of the year Kieran Read told TheScore.ie where his team currently stands.

“I think we’re playing a better style than we were back then,” said Read. “It’s hard to compare to back then [2011], it’s apples to apples really. Certainly the culture is great at the moment and we’re playing a better style of footy – We’re a team that likes to play well and win playing well.”

Ireland captain Paul O’Connell agreed, “New Zealand look to be out on their own. A lot of people were given South Africa a chance of giving them a fair crack of a game in the last round of the Rugby Championship in Ellis Park. I think New Zealand won quite convincingly in that game.

“Even when they look vulnerable or like they could be struggling, they have the mental fortitude now where they are able to dig out performances… When they’ve gone behind they produce big performances and produce big wins. At the moment, the gap is big. They’re a sensational side; they’ve incredible experience and very few weaknesses. That’s the challenge to us.”

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O’Connell reflects on Ireland’s harrowing defeat to New Zealand. INPHO/James Crombie

Former Munster and Ireland flanker, and TheScore.ie rugby columnist David Wallace, believes Ireland will take heart from pushing the All Blacks so close in November. “The rankings don’t lie; it’s the undoubted top two with Australia coming back strongly,” said Wallace. “They’ve some talented attackers, the coaching staff has improved and they are in a better environment.”

Despite the heart-breaking nature of the finish, the All Blacks will hopefully prove a shot in the arm for Irish rugby. It may turn out to be a similar catalyst that the Munster game against New Zealand, in 2008, turned out to be. Munster came close to beating them at Thomond and Rob Kearney, a month later, asked why players couldn’t play with the same intensity for Ireland.

“It was a brave thing to say but it brought the question out in the open and we won the Grand Slam three months later. The Irish provinces, as we witnessed in the Heineken Cup this month, fed off that New Zealand result. They recognise that the intensity is needed to compete with the best.”

Wallace added, “Ireland are strong going into the six Nations but England have a squad of players coming into their prime, who are used to playing with each other. They will be annoyed at the manner in which they lost out on the Grand Slam [losing to Wales] and will be determined to go one step further next year.”

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Patrick McCarry

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