All Blacks deliver another stark lesson

Peter Bills: Talking Rugby
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The Independent Online

Live inside a warm, cosy bubble, never venture outside where the wind is cold and the mud deep and this is what you get.

Has there ever been a more rousing atmosphere for an Irish rugby match than we witnessed at Croke Park, Dublin, for the start of Saturday's Test against New Zealand? And has it ever dissipated so rapidly, all the hot air as exposed as if a pin had been put against a balloon?

There are myriad reasons for the shattering realisation in this part of the world that Ireland does not inhabit the same rugby planet as New Zealand. One was the reaction of New Zealand coach Graham Henry, to their 22-3 victory. On the lips of any coach in this part of the world, in the northern hemisphere, there would have been only plaudits. It isn’t like that in New Zealand.

“Pleased with the result but there were some frustrations” said Henry. “We had a number of opportunities that we didn’t finish.”

Imagine such words from a northern hemisphere coach whose side has just won in a canter, scoring three tries to nil. But Henry is from the old school, one that refuses to hand out cheap praise. His relentless search for perfection exists because the standards under which he is judged in his native land are intimidatingly intense. If New Zealand does not end this tour with a Grand Slam, achieved with much style, the knives will be out for him when he gets home.

None of these standards of rugby excellence, the demand for precision and execution to be flawless together with commitment and intensity, remotely apply in the northern hemisphere. They did in England in the Clive Woodward era, but no more. Welsh coach Warren Gatland understands the need for them but not yet his players.

The trouble here is that the best players are never exposed to the highest standards pertaining worldwide. Playing for Munster or Leicester against Perpignan or London Wasps is fine but it has about as much to do with facing the All Blacks as curry sauce with a pint of Guinness. Nevertheless, the plaudits and praise awarded to players in this part of the world are never lowered commensurate with those reduced operating standards. No-one ever says, well, he played quite well but would it have been enough against New Zealand or the Crusaders in Super 14. That kind of talk is not considered.

For most of the time, as long as the players of the four Home Unions stay in their own cosy world, it is not that obvious. Only when they venture out of that bubble do they see the reality. For sure, Ireland’s rugby men now know the truth. Ask Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe. They saw All Blacks lock Brad Thorn coming straight for them at pace as he drove for the try line. It must have been like watching a high speed train bearing down on them.

The northern hemisphere system is to blame because it protects and promotes mediocrity. But the players, too. Brian O’Driscoll has been one of Ireland’s finest ever rugby players with skills to light up most occasions. But when he had the opportunity to go abroad to play, to learn a new way, study rugby and its philosophies from a different perspective, what did he do? Helped by the IRFU's big financial offer, he elected to stay the big fish in the little pond.

Imagine if O’Driscoll had chosen to play in New Zealand for a couple of years, perhaps joining Robbie Deans’ Crusaders. How much even better a player would he have become? But the money here is so good, the lifestyle alluring and Dublin is home. O’Driscoll, by the way, is far from alone in putting home comforts and the familiar before the kind of relentless ambition and constant search for perfection epitomised by New Zealanders.

This last weekend demolished another myth, the one propagated by some southern hemisphere players who swear they are joining provinces or clubs in the northern hemisphere ‘to improve themselves and their game’. When Henry said recently that such players might well improve themselves but not their rugby, he was publicly rubbished by the ignorant elements of the British media.

Saturday in Dublin and at Twickenham confirmed the wisdom of Henry’s remarks. Rugby in this part of the world may be the best paid but it is a million miles from the best because the attitudes here are hugely below those pertaining in most of the southern hemisphere.

On Saturday night, Ireland’s players gave their all and tried most things. You could not point a finger at a single player and say he lacked commitment or effort. But effort alone is not enough. The skills and expectations of the New Zealanders are light years ahead of Ireland’s, and England’s and Wales’s too for that matter.

It is likely to remain thus until the search for improvement becomes a mantra, an inherent mentality among northern hemisphere players just as it is and always has been among their southern counterparts.

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