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Memories of first All Black glimpse in '89 strong, but mystique lifted for Best

“It’s just a question of whether mentally we can stay in the game. Physically we are more than able to do it.”

Sean Farrell reports from Chicago

THERE IS UNDOUBTEDLY a great mystique surrounding New Zealand’s rugby team.

The simple, forboding colour they named themselves after quite possibly made them seem like something special even before they proved themselves consistenly (if not always exactly when it mattered most) the best team in the world.

Kieran Read leads the All Blacks during the Haka Source: Photosport/INPHO

Between the style, the silver fern, the cloth it’s sewn onto and the Haka there’s a lot to get caught up in. More often than not, the All Blacks deliver on the promise too.

This money-spinning Chicago trip has allowed Ireland two swipes in a month against the standard-bearers of the game, but visits from the All Blacks have been relatively rare compared to Australia and South Africa down the years.

Their games stand out, every rugby fan remembers their first glimpse.

“The first time I saw the All Blacks play was when they played Ulster in 1989,” says Rory Best.

On that day, Best went up to Ravenhill with his family to see Ulster slip to a 21 – 3 defeat.

Zinzan Brooke and Va’aiga Tuigamala scored for the tourists and perhaps the young Poyntzpass kid even kept a close eye on Sean Fitzpatrick at hooker.

“I remember seeing the Haka for the first time and all of that. It always was special when the All Blacks came to town.”

“You didn’t have all of these TV channels showing every single rugby match that’s ever played,” adds Best.

“You knew the names, you heard the names being from a rugby family, you heard them being talked about. Those occasions were very special, because they were players you’d never seen in real life.”

Rory Best gets past Luke Romano and Steven Luatua Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Now a 34-year-old seasoned pro, Best has long since graduated from being the kid who was brought to Belfast and Dublin to watch New Zealand take on Irish teams.

Back then, he recalls travelling with hope that Ireland could do the impossible. These days, Best doesn’t believe the task is beyond his team. But he still takes a lesson or two from the pre-professional era.

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“Back then, with all respect, it was a bit of a hope and a bit of a scrap.

“I remember Willie Anderson when they charged the Haka. It was all about blood and thunder for as long as the engine would hold out, and then just ‘gallant losers’ at the end.

“That’s not being disrespectful to those teams. The professional era has changed that. It’s more of a level playing field in that everyone has got all the sports science behind them, and that’s been the big change in Irish rugby.

When you think of big moments like that, that day there’s no doubt that Willie Anderson went out and they weren’t afraid of them. They were going to take the game to them.

“They just ultimately ran out of steam and that’s something that we know now that with the way we’re prepared that that won’t happen.

“It’s just a question of whether mentally we can stay in the game. Physically we are more than able to do it. It’s just mentally: can you be the one — when you need to switch in or change, or you need to have that bit of ball focus to not give them the ball back easily — can you do it under the intense pressure of the All Blacks coming off the line at you be it the 39th minute or the 79th minute?”

Times have changed. 2013, though Ireland have stopped talking about it late this week, has helped clear the smoke and given a glimpse through that All Black mystique. The Haka remains, but even that has shed its magic over the years as far as Best is concerned.

It’s nothing to get riled up about, just a time when you can stand and gather your thoughts between anthems and kick-off.

Rory Best Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Because there have been a few instances, they don’t allow you to go past the 10-metre line anyway. We will just line up. Everyone will deal with it in their own way.

“People will watch it, respect it… in their own head, they will rehearse their own roles.

“For me, it will be going through plays to make sure, that when that game kicks off I am in the best possible place to win the game for Ireland. Because ultimately that is what it is about.

“The Haka is a great spectacle… it is a great sideshow for a supporter, my kids absolutely love to watch it whenever we’re are at home watching the Rugby Championship.

“For us it is a sideshow, all that matters to us is the kick-off, the game, and all that comes after that.”

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Sean Farrell

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