Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Former All Black fronts Irish

Nick Mallet laid down the challenge. It was a good old-fashioned "my da is bigger than your da" taunt, in this case relating to the Italian and Irish front rows, but if Mallett had known more about the man responsible for the Irish scrum he would been aware that Greg Feek knew all about laying down challenges.

Feek, a Taranaki boy and Maori on his mother's side, won 10 caps for the All Blacks but also played for the New Zealand Maori during his days as an uncompromising loose-head prop and is imbued with the culture.

"It is part of who we are," explains the 36-year-old. "This country is unique in the way it embraces a variety of different cultures and Maori is the foundation.

"It starts in school where every school has their own haka and you see skinny white boys, Asian kids, whoever, all doing it. It's like kids learning Irish in school in Ireland and it is a big part of New Zealand and over the last 10 years or so, Maoris have won back a lot of things that had been theirs.

"I see a lot of similarities between the Maori and Irish in terms of passion and sense of identity - it's a bit like that scene in Braveheart when the Irish and Scots are charging towards each other with swords raised and next thing they are laughing, joking and shaking hands." The haka (which Feek famously led against Ireland the day Richie McCaw won his first cap at Lansdowne Road in 2001) is the ultimate rugby challenge.

"It is very emotional," says Feek. "It is a real adrenalin rush, you think of the people you are representing, the history, the culture and the challenge you are laying down.

"People say it gives New Zealand a psychological advantage but by going on about it you just highlight that advantage. I would advise anyone facing the haka just to front up and face it, accept the challenge, draw from it and use it as a positive."

Exactly how Feek and his front row treated Mallett's challenge last week.

"It shouldn't take more than the pride of representing your country or the knowledge that you could be going home if you lose to motivate you for a game like last week's," says Feek.

"Everyone has put in a lot of work into getting the scrum right and he (Mallett) wasn't going to undo that. We have worked way too hard to say it was all down to Nick Mallett.

"But it didn't hurt."

Many people may not be aware but this is not Feek's first World Cup. He was part of the supremely talented All Blacks squad stunned by an unheralded French side in a Twickenham semi-final generally considered to have been one of rugby's great matches.

Only 24, Feek had a bit-part role in that tournament and was in the stands for the semi-final.

"It was incredible, there was a point in the match where you could sense this huge shift in energy towards the French, on the pitch and in the crowd, and it was irresistible," he added. "Everyone was in shock and I was on the bus when John Hart stood up and resigned afterwards. That World Cup gave me experience of being away for this length of time and how you cannot look too far ahead because it can come crashing down very quickly.

"I remember staying on in Europe for a few weeks after with some of the boys and when we eventually got back to New Zealand, the airport security guy saying: "Jeez, you guys are brave coming back here so soon."

Feek was behind the remarkable second-half scrum transformation that was the springboard for Leinster's Heineken Cup glory in May and has masterminded a revolution in the Irish scrum also.

While Feek is happy to acknowledge the scrummaging technique of Mike Ross and Rory Best and the huge strides taken by Cian Healy, his mantra revolves around the "blanket of eight". None of the half-hearted trade-offs 'I'll push you, if you lift me' that existed before, the Irish scrum is now a unified effort.

"You have got two Lions locks pushing the front row and a back-row that can generate tremendous power so ... use it. It was great to see Jamie (Heaslip) come to training with long studs, scrummaging boots. If you look up and see eight sets of eyes staring you down before you engage rather than two or three, it makes a big difference."

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