Rugby Union: Irish rely on pride to counter All-Black tide

Ireland have been understandably bullish as they prepared for today's Test against New Zealand, but Tim Glover still expects a drubbing in Dublin.
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Ireland, like Scotland, have never beaten the All Blacks. They have been trying since 1905 and, although its an uncomfortable thought, you begin to wonder if they ever will. Certainly nobody expects the backlash to begin at Lansdowne Road today.

It would seem that Ireland's best chance of breaking the monopoly would be for a) New Zealand to forsake rugby as its national obsession and take up Morris dancing, or b) for the Irish to merge with the Scots. Even then the prognosis would look dark.

It is customary for Ireland to make life as uncomfortable as possible in Dublin for visitors, but it is also customary for the visitors to ride the storm before enjoying the freedom of Lansdowne Road.

"Our approach will be to have every player perform to the best of his ability and to turn in a major performance overall," said their coach, Brian Ashton. "Obviously we are very much the underdogs. But we have some very good players on the way up and we are looking to the future."

Pat Whelan, the manager, said: "There is no such thing as a bad All Black." Very true. Unfortunately there is such a thing as an average Irish player and Ireland are by no means at full strength for this, the severest of examinations. The best they can hope for is an exercise in damage limitation.

Andrew Mehrtens, the All Black's stand-off who has scored 274 points from 18 Tests at an average of more the 15 a game, delivers encouragement to the hosts with one hand while producing a stiletto in the other.

"I don't subscribe to the view there is a significant gap between the southern hemisphere and the north," Mehrtens said. "There are a lot of good players over here and every game is a one off. Ireland will not take one backward step."

Mehrtens recalled Ireland's almost kamikaze-like approach to their World Cup match in Johannesburg two years ago. "They unsettled us and played with pride and passion." He neglected to mention the final score which was 43-19.

To most observers, the All Blacks' 13-try curtain raiser to the tour at Llanelli, which was played in driving rain, was damn near flawless. The only flat note at Stradey Park was struck by Mehrtens. Eight of the 13 tries were unconverted and his generally impeccable kicking game seemed to be out of sync.

There was, of course, a reason. It was the first time he had used a Reebok ball. "It was light and it tended to float in the wind," he said. Today Mehrtens will be reunited with his favourite Gilbert.

To be sure, the 21-year-old full-back Christian Cullen can expect the Gilbert to arrive with a coating of snow, accompanied by half the Irish team, but even here there maybe no advantage for Ireland.

Cullen, who scored four tries against Llanelli (never in the history of competition has so many dragons been slain by a solitary Christian) demonstrated that he is not just quick but phenomenally strong. Kicking hard-earned possession to Cullen is likely to backfire.

In any case, anything Eric Elwood can do, Mehrtens is likely to do better, especially as Ireland are fielding a debutant at full-back in Kevin Nowlan. He is one of five new caps. As Ashton says, Ireland are looking to the future but it looks black.

IRELAND (v New Zealand, Lansdowne Road, 3pm): K Nowlan (St Mary's); D Hickie (St Mary's), R Henderson (Wasps), M McCall (London Irish), J McWeeney (St Mary's); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's); N Popplewell (Newcastle), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), M O'Kelly (L Irish), E Halvey (Shannon), K Dawson (L Irish), E Miller (Leicester). Replacements: K Maggs (Bristol), D Humphreys (L Irish), B O'Meara (Cork Constitution), R Corrigan (Greystones), R Nesdale (Newcastle), D Erskine (Sale).

NEW ZEALAND: C Cullen (Manawatu); J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), A Ieremia (Wellington), G Osborne (North Harbour); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury, capt); C Dowd (Auckland), N Hewitt (Southland), O Brown (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), R Brooke (Auckland), T Randell (Otago), A Blowers (Auckland), Z Brooke (Auckland). Reserves: S McLeod (Waikato), J Preston (Wellington), J Kronfeld (Otago), C Riechelmann (Auckland), M Allen (Manawatu), A Oliver (Otago).

Referee: A Spreadbury (England).