A few people have been saying that Ireland will win a test against New Zealand this summer for the first time. I hope they are right, for reasons I will get to in a moment, but it is hard to be so bullish about a team when both recent history and ancient history are so heavily stacked against them.
The reason I hope Ireland do win in New Zealand is not from a prejudice for and against either side, but because a powerful northern hemisphere game makes rugby more interesting. Every four years (bar one) the rugby World Cup final is contested between one of the southern hemisphere giants and either England or France. No country from outside the big five has ever made it to the final.
Rugby Union’s worldwide impetus would receive a boost if that were to change. At the very least It would be good for the perception of the game if either Ireland or Wales could make it to the final in 2015. It might be stretching it a bit to expect the likes of Argentina or Samoa or Scotland to make it, but someone outside the big five would give encouragement to the rest.
For that to happen Wales and Ireland need to start beating the Southern Hemisphere on a regular basis. England’s World Cup victory in 2003 was greatly assisted by the confidence that had come from recent victories over the All Blacks after decades of struggling.
But here’s the rub. How will an Ireland pack, that got completely monstered by England at Twickenham a couple of months ago, compete with the All Blacks. Yes, I know New Zealand will be without Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino, two sizeable holes in their World Cup winning team, but I still see some problems.
Does anyone not wearing an orange wig fancy the chances of the Irish front row against the likes of Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks. And what about the Ireland second row. They desperately need Paul O’Connell back, but even then I have my doubts.
Ireland has had some pretty mighty locks over the years. You think of the likes of Willie John, Moss Keane, Willie Anderson, Donal Lenihan, Neil Francis, Jeremy Davidson, Mick Galwey (sort of a lock) and Malcolm O’Kelly. O’Connell is on that list, although he is certainly not as an accomplished hell raiser as some of those beer monsters.
But my problem with O’Connell is that he has not really done it consistently against Southern Hemisphere teams, at World Cups or on Lions tours. At the very top of the game, he has been outjumped. O’Connell is a very fine player but his record suggests that he is not quite so mighty as sometimes depicted.
I then come to the axis at 10/12. Again Ireland has been good enough at Six Nations level over the years, but a beat short against the very best. Jonny Sexton and Gordon D’Arcy against Dan Carter and SBW or Ma’a Nonu looks a mismatch to me. D’Arcy has never replicated his early international form after a sequence of injuries and Sexton has yet to establish himself.
Ireland does have world class players. Brian O’Driscoll, even without the formidable gas of his youth, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe are all world class. Stephen Ferris would have been with a pair of decent knees. But with Ferris a knee-op waiting to happen, Bowe out injured and O’Connell struggling to make it, the famous Irish optimism could do with a reality check (and a balanced back row).
The golden generation has won one Grand Slam, never beaten New Zealand and never reached a World Cup semi. Ireland’s best hope is that the Super 15 keeps knocking over some of New Zealand’s best. Keven Mealamu is touch and go, Carter is coming back from injury, Kaino, Cory Jane (probably the best wing in the world at the time of his injury) and Richard Kahui are out. A third of the World Cup team is unlikely to play.
A couple of more casualties and maybe Ireland could make history. But away from home? I hope I’m wrong, but the weight of history is against them.