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Tyrone Howe: Ireland badly need the spirit of Willie Anderson’s boys

Type the name “Willie Anderson” into Google and the second option that comes up displays these three words, “Willie Anderson haka”.

Best intentions: Skipper Willie Anderson led the memorable Irish confrontation of the All Black haka at Lansdowne Road in 1989 although, despite that defiance, his team went on to lose the match 23-6

I have a black and white print on the wall at home. It shows one of my favourite moments in rugby history. That indomitable pose and statement made by Ireland's XV in 1989, led by captain Willie Anderson, when they approached the All Black Haka, all in a line, arms linked and oozing passion and intensity.

I was 18 years of age at the time and the great Dungannon man, toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball with Buck Shelford just sticks in the memory.

One thing I love about ‘Big Willie’ is that he was never afraid to challenge convention and in that moment he and his players grasped that mental edge and intensity back from New Zealand and used it to their own advantage although, despite this initial burst of positivity, Ireland went on to lose by 23 points to six.

Another truly outstanding occasion that still gives me goosebumps every time I watch it is when Munster’s four Kiwis, including Doug Howlett, laid down their own challenge to the All Blacks at Thomond Park two years ago. I defy you not to feel the atmosphere as the crowd crackles with pure electricity. Then, complete silence for the Haka. Rugby theatre at its absolute best.

That evening in Limerick Munster came within four minutes of claiming the most prized of rugby achievements — the All Black scalp — but Joe Rokocoko saved the day by getting one over his old teammate Howlett. Munster lost by two points.

After two weekends of miserably depressing rugby, you just wonder what must be going through the minds of the Irish players this week as they prepare to face the mighty All Blacks. It might qualify as negative thinking, but I dare say that if you were to give the players the option of losing by the same 17-point margin that Anderson’s men suffered, they would bite your arm off.

Reassurance will also be hard to come by when you consider that Scotland, the team that conceded almost a half century of points last Saturday, actually beat Ireland at Croke Park little more than six months ago.

It is hard to see where the slightest shafts of light are coming from. While England look to their youngsters for inspiration, Ireland are still looking to their elder statesmen to guide them through these matches.

They can certainly add their experience and, to his credit, we have received a sharp reminder of what Ronan O’Gara can still offer. However, behind a pack struggling for set piece parity never mind dominance, even the great BOD and our own Tommy Bowe are limited in what they can contribute.

One thing that Declan Kidney should pick up on is that, on this tour so far, New Zealand have mainly been a first half team. Both England and Scotland had the misfortune of meeting the well-oiled All Black juggernaut in their opening matches this autumn. Graham Henry’s men cruelly exposed this lack of match practice and capitalised on those first half cobwebs, costing England 17 and Scotland 28 points by halftime.

So, maybe the main ray of hope is that Ireland have two games under their belts and come through two extremely physical test matches. The players should be, in theory, a bit more battle-hardened and are in a better position to not allow the same profligacy. A massive first half performance is required to force the All Blacks to have to produce something special in the second half, rather than simply close out the game. Sterling workrate and a total disregard for the body in defence are prerequisites.

This fixture feels like the old days of Irish rugby, when the underdogs tag invariably meant a glorious effort, inevitable defeat and a great night in Dublin.

There is little to suggest that this Saturday will throw up anything too surprising, but it would make a pleasant change to be able to talk positively about the Irish performance.

Some brave soul will fancy the long odds on an Ireland victory. Good luck to him — my money will be staying firmly in my pocket.

Belfast Telegraph


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