What the hell happened? It’s a question that Leo Cullen, in so many words, asked at the final whistle. It’s a question Joe Schmidt and the rest of the squad will ask for most of the summer. And it’s a question the powers that be in the IRB should be asking themselves. Leinster’s tussle with Ospreys in the Rabo final is one that a good portion of Leinster fans will remember for years as being “The One That Poite Won” but that is not what I am referring to here. Yes it is true that he had a shocker to rival any of his previous achievements last weekend in the RDS, but that is not why this question should resonate strongly. No the reason is because when Poite was only involved sparingly last Sunday, the Rabo final was one of the best games of rugby played all season. Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not it affected the result, the horrifically poor handling of the game by Roman Poite has sullied the match, meaning that fans on both sides will more so remember in ten years’ time that the officiating was a disgrace, although I’m sure the majority of Ospreys fans will be comfortable enough remembering that it was the day they took four Celtic League trophies, and achievement that is solely theirs at the moment and one they deserve and should be proud of.
Poite, along with Pearson & Barnes has done a fantastic job the entire season of showing clearly how much work needs to be done on the refereeing end of things in the game. Yes of course they are reprimanding Pearson and Barnes and Paddy O’Brien has left/been removed from the administrative end, but the refs need to be watched very closely over the next few years, and need to be sternly instructed and told what’s what so as they are well aware of how the game is going to be controlled from here on in. Nothing angers the fans more than the inconsistency found in various calls, namely what colour card the officials should be producing from their pocket. There are signs of progress showing, but more are needed.
But all of the club business is done now, and all eyes are shifting to the international game once more. Scotland take on one of the most random tours ever seen with Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji and others, guaranteeing that if nothing else, it’ll be a fun holiday. Wales and England travel to Australia and South Africa respectively, whilst France take on Argentina in a two test series. Something that is being ignored, amidst all the concern for Irish losses plummeting the team below the top 8 for the World Cup draw, is the fact that some more wins from Scotland like their incredible battle of attrition against Australia could put Ireland in an even more precarious position than they already are, should their results go the opposite way. Ireland would then find themselves having a very difficult November. Essentially, there is more pressure on the squad to get a result on this tour than there has been arguably any time before.
So what has Declan Kidney done to try and make this first win over the Kiwis even a faintest possibility? Well, once more there isn’t much surprise in his selection other than those forced through injury. The final squad finds Paul Marshall unexpectedly getting himself on the plane, along with Chris Henry and Declan Fitzpatrick making up the more fresh numbers to go along with the old dogs. But these all come from injury to Boss, Ferris and Ross. Now, most are under the assumption that Kidney is afraid to experiment on this tour out of fear of the rankings, and whilst I agree to a point I think it is fair to say that in any year we would have seen similar conservatism. When players like Gilroy play out of their skin in the ingeniously untelevised Barbarians game and don’t make it on the plane, it is pretty clear that Kidney hasn’t changed or learned anything from two Six Nations that both showed the cost of a shallow squad. As it stands, the tighthead side of things in NZ will consist of two uncapped players, there is no viable centre replacements, and the cover on the wing, in the absence of Bowe, holds very little experience and mediocre skill. It is frustrating, but does it even warrant discussing further? Probably not.
Every time Ireland play the All Blacks, the fire ignites. The nation convinces itself that this is the time, this is the year. And every time we are disappointed. But as Brian O’Driscoll remarked before playing Italy in last year’s Six Nations, they will beat them some day. Just like everyone though we wouldn’t do the Slam again, beating the All Blacks has become that carrot, one that is all the more sweeter given that the recently released 10 year IRB schedule means Ireland won’t travel down this direction for another ten years at least. Many players making up the squad at the minute saw last August as their last chance at a World Cup. Moment has passed, moment was lost, time to move on. They’re moving on to their last chance to beat the unbeatable. And it is true to say that New Zealand look far from perfect at the moment, what with the likes of Thorn and Kaino absent, many more players reaching the end of their tenure and a new coach in to boot, really they could be said to be more ripe for the taking now than they have ever been. Ireland are well aware of this and it means that the first test at least, will come down solely to a game of skill. Mind games aside, this will be player on player who can front up the best. Everyone always says that Ireland stand their best chance of beating the All Blacks in the first test, it would seem Declan Kidney has finally listened.
Late news just in is that Kidney has selected a very fresh squad with Zebo and McFadden out wide, Earls and O’Driscoll at centre amongst other surprises such as D’Arcy and Trimble leaving the 22 altogether. Not for one second can it be suggested that this is the dream team to beat the All Blacks, but Kidney is finally shaking up the selection enough that these new caps and bridesmaids can put a proper stake to their claim of a starting jersey. It would seem however that his approach may be a reversed one, in holding out the usual suspects for the final tests, and if nothing else it’s interesting. Historically, whenever Ireland had more than one crack at the Kiwis, the strongest 15 took the field in the first test, leaving the later test to be one where we found a weakened Ireland and an invigorated New Zealand. Who knows how this experiment might work, with New Zealand every bit as likely to pick up their own injuries by the final test and Ireland hopefully able to select some serious experience either to start or come off the bench. The first test is neither looking like a sure win or definite rout right now, and the entire series could be very interesting to watch if Kidney keeps up the liberal approach he has shown today. We can only wait and see.
Ireland VS New Zealand June 9th KO 8.35am Irish time