The agony of yesterday is a feeling not unknown to Irish rugby fans. The ‘lads’ have been so close to huge victories many times, only to wobble ever so slightly in the final minutes and consign themselves to honourable defeat, an empty label when victory is so desired. What made yesterday so crushing however was that it was almost undoubtedly, the single greatest performance by a squad of Irish players in the history of the game (the game itself could rank among the best of all time). The intensity was boilerplate hot, the hits were continuous and each full bodied contact echoed around the stadium, battling to be heard over the roar of fifty thousand Irish men and women. For 80mins yesterday, the crowd in the Aviva almost believed. They were always coming though, the slow, grinding, and relentless black tide. When Ryan Crotty grounded the ball, in the very last seconds of the energy sapping, heart thumping, awe inspiring spectacle, Irish heads and hearts sunk. When the ball sailed over the bar for the conversion, the greatest performance ever given by an Irish team was reduced to another tick in the loss column. A draw wouldn’t have offered relief, it might even have made it worse. It was a win, a first over New Zealand, that Ireland so desperately craved.
That first win against the All Blacks didn’t come yesterday. The reason is not the coach or the squad as it might have been in the past. Actually, the reason why Ireland didn’t beat New Zealand yesterday is rather simple in my opinion – the Irish rugby public give New Zealand too much respect. They hold the All Blacks on a mystical rugby pedestal that no other major rugby-playing nation does and this resonates through everyone and has an effect on the team itself whether we know it or not. It is something I’ve always noticed and something I have never understood. Notice I said Irish people, not the Irish team. I don’t feel that the players doubt themselves anymore and yesterday is perfect evidence of that. They went for the throat of arguably the greatest rugby squad that has ever played, and almost slit it. It makes sense too as most of them have won Heineken Cups with Leinster or Munster, some are Grand Slam Champions and more are Triple Crown champions. To my mind, it is the Irish fan, so brilliant in a thousand ways, that has the ability to change the fortunes of the Irish team by changing their attitude slightly.
Respect, but not wide-eyed awe and deference is the attitude the rugby fans of Ireland need to assume. I’m going to use Australia as the example as it’s the one I know best. You see, I was born and raised in Melbourne to Irish parents. It’s odd having a strong affinity for two places, two different people. When it comes to rugby however, I am firmly in the Wallaby camp. I will always follow Ireland and cheer them on but when it comes to head to head, the green and gold of Australia invariably wins. Why? Because I don’t like the idea of being blinded by mysticism and conceding defeat without giving it a go, which is my experience of the Ireland fan every time they play New Zealand (and these days, only New Zealand). They say things like “Let’s give them a game” and “We won’t be humiliated, but the All Blacks by 10”. Bullshit! If I could take a single attitude from the average Wallaby fan to give the Irish fan, it would be this: New Zealand is a great rugby nation, but they’re not gods and if it bleeds, you can kill it. The Australian rugby public respect the All Blacks, but they’ll never, ever, take their seat in the stadium believing they have no chance of winning; in my experience Irish fans cannot say the same.
The Haka is impressive, and a great tradition, but if that’s the only reason you’re at the match, give your ticket to someone else. Richie McCaw and the rest of the All Blacks are phenomenal players, but they’re not infallible. They’ll punish any mistakes you make ruthlessly, but you can do the same. The Haka is impressive, but if that’s the only reason you’re at the match, give your ticket to someone else. They have a second squad that could beat most first teams in the world, but they can only play fifteen at a time. A good performance will not be good enough against them, but if we play to our best we can win. The Haka is impressive, but if that’s the only reason you’re at the match, give your ticket to someone else. Just stop thinking the lads in green can’t do it and the victory will come. Stop considering yourself beaten before you've had a go. New Zealand are the only team Ireland still do this with.
Take the three teams that beat the All Blacks most frequently; South Africa, Australia and France. It is my belief that the single biggest reason for their moderate success against New Zealand (none have a winning record) is that neither the players nor the fans that support them fear the All Blacks to the point where they don’t believe they can beat them every time they play them. When living in Australia, even during the periods where the Wallabies weren’t playing well or had a squad that wasn’t as strong as the historical norm, no Australian rugby fan ever went to a match against the All Blacks looking for “a good performance”. No. They embraced the challenge before them and every fan walked into the stadium looking for the win believing it could be achieved. Therein lies the difference – respect, but not automatic submission. The fact that Ireland haven’t yet registered a single victory against the All Blacks doesn’t mean the Irish public can’t effect this much required change. In fact, the single greatest thing that might be taken from yesterdays match is that the players certainly believe, so now it’s our turn. And remember, the Haka is impressive, but if that’s the only reason you’re at the match, give your ticket to someone who sees through the mysticism, and believes, because yesterday the lads on the pitch wearing green showed they certainly do.
All photos Credit - The Irish Times