It's the test match
of the year tomorrow at Lansdowne Road
in Dublin, where number two in the world Ireland
hosts number one, the New Zealand All Blacks
Kiwis have only recently come to regard Ireland as genuine competition. The All Blacks have been playing Ireland for 113 years and in that time Ireland have won just once, two years ago. Genuine competition they are however and as the strongest side in the northern hemisphere Ireland should provide a stern test.
For a team that managed a victory over New Zealand after 111 years of trying, the Irish are supremely confident going into this one. Their players, pundits and public are predicting an Irish victory.
To which I say "oh you bloody think so"
as I've heard that before and in which lies a story. Forgive my meandering, the 17th of November 2001 was an eventful day:
I was living at Free Trade Wharf
and managed to get flights in and out of the City Airport
, the closest of London's airports to where I lived, to spend the day in Dublin and attend the test. Friends back home in New Zealand told me to keep an eye on the All Blacks' new openside flanker
, the 20 year-old Richie McCaw
, who was on debut.
Openside flanker is the
New Zealand position as it evolved from the Kiwi innovation known as the "wing forward." It was pioneered by Dave Gallaher
, the captain of the All Black Originals
tour to the northern hemisphere, in 1905. Incidentally, Gallaher was born in Ireland. Over the century the All Blacks had been served extremely well by a procession of great openside flankers and the decade before had seen two of the best, Michael Jones
and Josh Kronfeld
Who was the successor to the great Jones and Kronfeld? Where was the next All Black openside flanker going to come from? The stock of potential candidates seemed low.
To be fair I was a bit hungover, as I sat in the terminal coffee shop with my face painted black and dressed entirely in black as Kiwis are wont to do for a test match, with my sunglasses on. An older couple approached me and the bloke asked "are you off to the game?"
Normally this would have prompted a sarcastic response from me along the lines of "no, I'm a minstrel off to perform at a Ku Klux Klan convention" but this couple seemed nice and well, old. "Yes" I sighed, restraining myself. "I am going to the game."
"This is our son Mat, he's twelve. He's going to stay with his older brother who's studying at Trinity College
. He's never travelled by himself before, would you mind seeing him on and off the plane?"
"Sure, happy to" I replied.
2001 was a different time. Back then you could entrust the international travel arrangements of your twelve year-old to a 30 year-old bloke in blackface you'd never met before, no worries.
Mat was a nice kid. And it turned out his school rugby coach was the great All Black fullback John Gallagher
whom I'd happened to meet a few months earlier at a social function at the Cafe Royal
in Piccadilly. We talked rugby as we boarded and took our seats.
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen" intoned the pilot. "I have some bad news. The headwinds crossing the Irish sea
were greater than anticipated so we don't have enough fuel for the flight back to Dublin. Unfortunately the City airport doesn't offer refuelling facilities so we're going to have to divert to London Stansted
to fuel up for the crossing."
As God is my witness, I swear this is true: Mat and I took an international flight from one part of London to another.
There were a lot of anxious fans on our flight and because of the delay we were under time pressure at Dublin airport. The Irish customs service and border patrol were really good about it, advising us to run and waving everyone through without checking our passports. (Incidentally this was the second time I didn't get an entry stamp for Ireland having previously entered the country on someone else's passport accidentally, but that is another story.) I handed Mat over to his brother in the terminal and headed for the ground.
Along the way every
Irish supporter was convinced Ireland would win. "You're going to lose," "the All Blacks are going to get thumped," yadda yadda. For a Kiwi this was extremely surprising, having never beaten us my conceit was Ireland were there merely to make up the numbers. I expected to sit in the stand and clap Ireland when they scored in the same condescending manner one claps the intellectually disabled kids at the Special Olympics
, "aww, didn't they do well."
And so it transpired. The All Blacks won the test 40-29
and Richie McCaw was awarded Man of the Match. He went on to captain New Zealand 110 times and become the greatest openside flanker of all time. The Irish supporters were disappointed but extremely gracious, offering congratulations on our way out of the ground and onto the Temple Bar
How times have changed. Ireland are no longer the special kids, they're a genuine threat and Kiwi fans are taking this one seriously. Tomorrow morning NZ time is going to be a titanic clash of the two best rugby teams on Earth going hammer and tongs.
Eighteen hours to go and I can't wait, for the first time I'm excited about a match again the Irish. Taking the 7 a.m. ferry across to Waiheke island
to enjoy a breakfast banquet and watch the game at the Solar Eating House
tomorrow morning feels like an intrepid journey, reminiscent of making my way to Lansdowne Road seventeen years ago. On this occassion though, I won't be applauding when Ireland score.
Best wishes to both teams. The winner can rightly claim to be the best rugby side on the planet.
-SRA. Auckland, 17/xi 2018.Update
19/xi: Ireland win 16-9. National day of mourning declared in NZ.