Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Three Cheers for the Gallantry and Glory of the New Zealand All-Blacks

What a wonderful sporting occasion that was at Thomond Park last night. It was a game that existed both out of its time, in the fact that it was played at all, and very much of its time, with the soon to be world famous Munster haka, demonstrating that there’s more to modern Munster multi-culturalism than the traditional mix of Cork and Limerick.

The very fact that New Zealand agreed to the game is astonishing in itself. The last time the All-Blacks played a midweek game, which were once regular features of the tours, of course, was seven years ago, and the last time the All-Blacks played a provincial or club side was when they visited Llanelli at Stradley Park eleven years ago, taking terrible revenge for their defeat there against Delme Thomas’ Scarlets in 1972. Rugby was only turning professional in 1997, but it’s full on now. Making the All-Blacks’, the biggest marquee name in the world game, decision to play Munster last night and turn the clock back to an earlier era, an era of glory before gold, admirable indeed.

It’s fashionable in the rugby press here to have a go at New Zealand as being cynical towards the game. What could be further from the truth? The New Zealanders’ appreciation of the game’s rich history and their own part in it shines like the silver fern on the jersey.

When Tana Umaga was being treated disgracefully here by bandwagon-jumping publicans, the people of Donegal showed their real appreciation of the All-Blacks by giving them such a warm welcome when the New Zealanders made their way to Letterkenny in Donegal – not noted as a rugby heartland – to pay tribute to Dave Gallaher, captain of the “Originals” that toured the British Isles. Letterkenny is the nearest town to Ramilton, the homeplace of the Gallahers before they immigrated to New Zealand, and the local rugby club named their pitch after him.

Always aware of who they are and what they represent, Umaga and the All-Blacks made their way up to open the pitch. There was no glory there. Letterkenny RFC is far from the great cathedrals of the game in Christchurch, in Durban, in Cardiff, but the All-Blacks are aware that the jersey carries duties as well. The game has no finer ambassadors.

There was concern that the game last night would be a massacre when, in an indication of just how professional the game is now, the IRFU didn’t countenance for a second the release of the Munster players from the international squad, with the game against Argentina coming up on Saturday. But last night’s combination of Dad’s army and boys brigade clung to the fundamental core of rugby that lies behind all this old blather about second phase go forward give and goes; rugby is fundamentally a game about smashing. Munster smashed for all they were worth last night; it would not surprise your correspondent if some of those fellas can’t walk this morning as a result. But what a game. What a spectacle. What an event.

The mutual respect for both sides was astonishing. When was the last time you heard complete silence for an opposition kicker? When did the haka, one of the great spectacles of the world game, receive so rapturous a reception? New Zealand can do the dog on the haka, but the reception it got in Limerick last night, including the challenge laid down by their own exiles, was just exhilarating. The Welsh wouldn’t let the All-Blacks perform the haka the last time New Zealand were in Cardiff. An Spailpín Fánach hopes the Welsh won’t let themselves down again this time.

Irish rugby is in a period of transition right now – the golden generation now look likely to hang them up and live the rest of their lives as under-achievers, while the phenomenal success of Munster ironically could prove to be the undoing of the national side. How many provincial sides will risk an Irish player learning his trade at stand-off half when you can go shopping for a Paul Warwick? But these are debates for another day. In the meantime, what a treat to have seen this game, and three loud cheers for New Zealand and their tremendous and endearing sportsmanship. Go n-imrí na Lán-Dubhaigh uaisle go deo.

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