Robin Scott-Elliot: The toughest challenge in sport leaves Ireland all black and blue
View From The Sofa: New Zealand v Ireland, Sky Sports
Monday 25 June 2012
What is consistently the greatest challenge in team sport? Once it might have been a tour to the Caribbean when the West Indies pace battery was at its fiercest in the 1980s, when stretchers were loaded on to the plane at Heathrow alongside the kitbags. Never has a cricketer's coffin been loaded with such double meaning as Marshall, Holding, Roberts – I could go on, it's a list as long as Joel Garner's trousers – waited on the other side of the Atlantic.
The wince-inducing image of Mike Gatting with two black eyes and a nose that had been dispatched to far corners of his face was a picture that sent a thousand shivers down batsmen's spines. Brian O'Driscoll will not have been so scared of a mirror after the final Test of Ireland's tour of New Zealand. Nonetheless, the marks were plain to see as he faced the post-match interview, a series of variations on the fundamental question, what does it feel like to be ground into the mud by the All Blacks?
Touring New Zealand is the ultimate team challenge. Sport is cyclical; a tour to West Indies now is no longer something to be feared. Spain and Barcelona may be the footballing powers de nos jours but there have been plenty of times when they have both been far from fearsome – Dundee United have twice won European ties at the Nou Camp, and until 2008 Spain journeyed round each tournament with "perennial underachievers" stencilled on the side of their coach (the bus, not the grumpy-looking man on the touchline).
Winning in New Zealand is an almighty feat. It's the all black uniform, the weight of history, chiselled opponents – Colin Meads carrying a sheep under each arm – while conditions always seem dark and grim (rugby players have the dubious privilege of following winter around the world). Ireland have never beaten New Zealand anywhere in 107 years of trying.
After France's tame exit at the Euros, Roy Keane, who might have made some blind-side flanker, suggested that "if you haven't got hunger and desire you've got nothing". His rugby compatriots clearly have plenty of hunger and desire and still ended up with nothing to take home from the tour.
The previous Saturday's last-minute defeat was a great game but this one was no less gripping viewing for the ruthlessness the All Blacks showed. Keane would have approved as the camera caught Richie McCaw exhorting his men to greater efforts as they passed the 50-point mark. Under the Irish posts, O'Driscoll gathered his side around him, a collection of bloodied and bruised faces, and exhorted them to, well, keep going. The best words might have been those a predecessor in green is supposed to have yelled at a similar moment of strife: "Kick ahead, Ireland, kick any fucking head."
As New Zealand rolled on, a cutaway revealed a row of chunky men sitting smiling in the stands, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Kieran Read; look at what you're not getting tonight. Back in the studio Sean Fitzpatrick smiled that killer smile. New Zealand's godfather was satisfied.
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