Ireland's Biggest Challenge Will Be the All Black
It is still too early to tell if the Irish will be able to successfully defend their Six Nations title. Two things are certain: there will be no Grand Slam, and they will need to rely on Italy or England to beat France if they are to win their 19th title (11 outright wins, 8 shared victories).
Ireland’s 33-10 loss to France at Croke Park was a vicious reality check for the current champions, who had been undefeated for 12 matches before the slaughter in Paris.
The men from the Emerald Isle were always going to face a massive challenge taking on Les Bleus in Paris, a partisan rugby venue where few teams have any success.
The loss answered one of only two real questions that remained about this Ireland side.
The first question—was Ireland good enough to beat a side that had showed the traits of a burgeoning world superpower? France has become a terrific side in the last year, and their performance in their capital confirmed that they are one of the leading sides on the planet, and bar a surprising lack of form (alas what would be typically French!) they should win this Six Nations.
Ireland could not make a statement, and despite their success in the 2009, it confirmed something that we had seen throughout recent years.
As good as this Irish team is, they just don’t seem to quite have the overall class or swagger that the best test sides in the world have.
Before Declan Kidney came on board, they won plenty of Triple Crowns and were runners up more times than they would care to admit, but never could close out the final match—which as fate would have it, was more often than not against France.
And despite a Grand Slam last year, we didn’t quite see enough to indicate they were a colossus.
Sure they beat the Springboks, but so did Leicester and Saracens.
There was no result showcasing their intent.
Other big teams have done this of late. The Springboks statement of intent last year wasn’t so much their Lions success or Tri Nations crown, it was the 3-0 whitewashing of their most powerful foe, the All Blacks.
And as for New Zealand, they made one of their own when running riot over France, beating the team that is likely to go onto win the Six Nations title 39-12.
So the Grand Slam has passed for Ireland; and perhaps the title as well.
But the second question now looms, and for all of the disappointment that came with the loss to France, or the potential—or should we say inevitable—loss of their title, there is one feat they can achieve this year that will pale all other achievements into significance.
Beat, for the very first time, the All Blacks.
Ireland, for all of their pedigree as a rugby nation, has never beaten New Zealand, and would dearly love to join a very illustrious list. Of the current test playing nations, only South Africa, Australia, England, Wales and France have beaten the All Blacks.
On the Nov. 25th 1905, Ireland met the All Blacks for the first time, coming face to face with the famed Originals.
Over 12,000 turned up at Lansdowne to see this black clad team that had conquered all before them, winning an incredible 21 straight matches on their tour to that point.
All Blacks first five eighth Billy Stead captained the team (in the absence of Dave Gallaher), with centre Bob Deans scoring a double and big lock Alexander McDonald crossing as well. Ellie Allen’s Irish team would lose 15-0, and the Originals would win every game on the tour, losing only to then Home Nations champions Wales in contentious circumstances.
On the Dec. 7th in 1963, Ireland would record their best ever “losing” effort against the All Blacks, and would lead New Zealand 5-3 at halftime before going onto lose 6-5. Captain Wilson Whineray would rely on a sole try to Kel Tremain and a penalty to super boot Don Clarke, with the fullback in his penultimate year of test rugby as his troublesome knee began to give.
Ireland’s captain James Kelly was shattered at his team’s failure to beat what was a highly regarded New Zealand team.
However, in their next encounter on the Jan. 20th 1973, Ireland would come halfway as it were to making history, holding Ian Kirkpatrick’s All Blacks to a 10-10 draw. Despite scoring two tries to one, with Sid Going and Alex Wyllie going over, Ireland would score two crucial penalties via their fly half Barry McGann.
But that was as good as it got.
As the years drew on the frequency of clashes between the two countries increased, but unfortunately for Ireland, so did the margins of defeat.
On the Nov. 18th 1989, the then World Champion All Blacks came to Lansdowne Road and inflicted on Ireland their then heaviest defeat between the two sides, with Buck Shelford’s side winning 23-6.
Three years later, Athletic Park in Wellington became a windswept hell for Ireland, as they crashed to a 59-6 defeat, with Sean Fitzpatrick and his men running in eleven tries and a 44-0 second half. That match to this day remains the largest ever loss in terms of margin suffered by the Irish.
Five years later in Dublin, it got worse, with a Justin Marshall led All Blacks beating Ireland 63-15, with Jeff Wilson and Glen Osbourne scoring four tries between them. That match set the record for the most points ever conceded by the Irish, which stands to this day.
While some heavy defeats followed, with New Zealand winning 40-8 in 2002 and 45-7 in 2005, the gap closed somewhat, as Ireland have desperately tried to break what has become a very black mark on their proud record.
Between 2006 and 2008 they would play the All Blacks three times in New Zealand, and would come within 10 points on two occasions. Their last encounter, on the Nov. 15th 2008 at Croke Park, the All Blacks won 22-3, which was the last time the Irish lost a game at home.
On the Jun. 12th this year, the Irish will land on New Zealand soil, to play the All Blacks in New Plymouth.
In 22 games over 105 years they have not won against the All Blacks, and have conceded 560 test points overall against 213 scored.
For however ugly this reads for an Irishman, there exists no better opportunity to mark their status as a world power, and a year out from the World Cup on New Zealand soil, two birds can be killed with one stone. To win in New Zealand would give Ireland belief they can win a global crown.
And to beat the All Blacks would mean conquering the final frontier.
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