Donncha O’Callaghan in today’s Times:
All Blacks deserve their status – they really do sweep the sheds
Phrases such as “sweep the sheds” and “no dickheads allowed” entered the sports lexicon quickly after James Kerr’s book Legacy came out five years ago. Now they’re almost clichés and more than a few people have become weary and cynical about All-Black culture.
They point towards their knack for getting the benefit of the doubt with decisions time and again as proof that their “special culture” is a construct embellished by themselves in order to get every edge they can. I do not go along with this, and think their exalted status is hard-earned.
My admiration for Kiwis comes from their deeds over generations, and from playing against and with them. The sweep-the-sheds mindset is not a gimmick. I remember chatting to Sean Dempsey, chef at the Killiney Castle hotel a few years ago, long before Kerr’s book came out. He told me their rooms were spotless, they left no trace after checkout.
We signed Doug Howlett at Munster in 2008. New Zealand’s record tryscorer, you may have expected some ego. He displayed nothing of the kind. I was struck by how, when he had finished eating, he would clean up after himself and give the plate back to the counter. Others would see this and the best elements of his culture became part of ours.
Doug brought a new level of critical thinking to Munster. We used to have goal-setting sessions for the season ahead. This made us accountable to each other as well as setting the bar for the term. One year Jerry Flannery was adamant that our goal had to be a perfect season — anything else was planning to lose.
We could see his rationale but the fear was, what then happens when 12 players go to Ireland camp? We’d be heaping too much pressure on the rest of the squad. And defeat is inevitable in sport — what do you do after that loss? How do you put air back in the balloon?
In this case, and others, Doug was lucid and practical. Goals needed to be broken down. If we wanted more players in the Ireland squad, which was one aim, then we needed to examine how the Ireland squad was picked. Did the interprovincial games carry a greater weight? If so, we needed to target those matches.
A whole season could be too great an entity. So make it more manageable. We’ve got eight games before the November internationals. How many points should we secure from those, for wins and bonus points? Suddenly it was more tangible, less intimidating. Yet by demanding more over shorter timeframes, and being more specific, it made for a season of greater achievement.
The same has been the case with Leinster and Isa Nacewa and Brad Thorn, Ulster with Jared Payne and Connacht with Bundee Aki. These players don’t just improve the team, they enhance the organisation and local people’s perception of it.
I can’t think of anybody who embodied what it means to be a Munster player more than Rua Tipoki. Rua was only with Munster from 2007-09, but he threw himself into local life. He brought his kids to Irish dancing, helped out loads with young teams in the Douglas area of Cork, where people still ask after him. Whenever I go to this Turkish barber in Carrigaline, he quickly gets around to Rua — how’s he getting on? There are two jerseys on the wall of his shop, a Galatasaray one and a Munster shirt signed by Rua.
Lifeimi Mafi was with us for six years but, at the risk of sounding corny, when you’re with us, you’re one of us for good. I remember him coming into our dressing room after he’d moved to Perpignan. One of our traditions was to get into a huddle and sing Stand Up And Fight after a match. Lifeimi was beckoned into the huddle, and there he was, his yellow shirt in the chain of red, belting out the words and crying.
It’s easy to be cynical about professional sport, where players go from team to team and allegiances are fleeting, but you cannot fake that emotion and those tears. He’s a Munsterman as much as any of us who were born there or who played for the team over a longer span.
Lifeimi, Rua, Doug and Jeremy Manning famously performed a greeting haka for Munster against the All Blacks in 2008. That was something that didn’t just happen. Rua asked New Zealand if he could do it, and also spoke to Maori elders.
It was incredibly emotional for us because it showed how much their new home meant to them; they were willing to perform the haka, with everything it means in their culture, while representing us. That would not have been a decision they arrived at lightly.
There is a special quality to Kiwis; they give you their full respect and attention when they shake your hand. They’re decent. A few years back I was walking on O’Connell Street a day before playing the All Blacks for Ireland. Kieran Read passed a few yards away and we just about caught each other’s eye. In such instances you’d typically keep walking, but he stopped and came over. Quick handshake.
“Are you good?”
“Yeah, thanks, yourself?”
“I’m good. See you tomorrow.”
The dignity with which they carry themselves, that humble and friendly nature, is one side to Kiwis. Come the “see you tomorrow” moment, you see the other.
The idea of losing represents much more than a sporting setback. It is a vexation to their being. To them, to be defeated is to let down their community and family and heritage. They will go to some outlandish lengths to avoid this, and to win.
We’ve seen the light and shade of this mindset here in the past few years. Their 60-metre drive to win at the death in 2013, nine phases and 23 passes, most of them with the clock in the red — what phenomenal resolve and coordination under pressure.
Then there was the Aviva Stadium in 2016, when their desperation to avoid a second loss to Ireland in a month led to them to play with a ferocious intent. There was a lot of commentary afterwards about how they went beyond the laws of the game, but that’s not something I’d entertain, nor would the players. When you’re hit by an All Black, you know you’ve been hit — it’s a different quality of impact.
This I learnt in my first collision with Richie McCaw. As over the top as it may sound, you need to be prepared to risk a career-ending smash if you want to be in the contest with them. To that end, you will often see opposition players sprawled around the field during games with them.
They will give it to you hard in defence and at the set piece. When they’re in their flow, though, there aren’t too many collisions; their skillset is too great, their ability to attack space too attuned for them to be bashed around the place. Oddly, I’ve sometimes come off the pitch against the All Blacks feeling I could play another game, because I’ve been unable to get near them.
There will be no such mismatch tomorrow and I expect skin and hair to fly up front. There has been a bit of focus on Steve Hansen, the All Blacks head coach, and his team’s barbs this week — about Johnny Sexton “liking to get his own way”, about Bundee Aki “looking Irish now”, according to Ian Foster, their assistant coach.
Of far greater interest I think were Hansen’s comments about Sexton and Conor Murray, when he was predicting that Murray would start. “I think the guys up front did the damage and that was what allowed him and Sexton to play,” said Hansen about Ireland’s win in Chicago two years ago.
Then on Thursday, on whether New Zealand would target Kieran Marmion: “We never go out to target anybody. If you’re going to target anyone, you want to target the big boys, because they’re the boys that lead you around the park.”
The message is clear: half backs, no matter how experienced or accomplished, cannot carry the game if the platform isn’t right. The arm wrestle up front has to be won. Expect this to be the focus.
Who will win? Before we make the customary prediction, we should never lose sight of the fact that it is a commendable achievement to be facing New Zealand with no consensus as to who will edge things. They are No 1 in the world in their No 1 team sport. We are No 2 in our No 4 game.
That we’re up there with them is to the immense credit of Joe Schmidt, the ultimate example of a Kiwi who has changed our standards for the better, and the system which the IRFU has overseen in recent years. It is one based on getting the most out of a small pool.
We simply do not have the depth of athletes playing rugby that they do; if Beauden Barrett were Irish he would probably be a winger with that pace. Brodie Retallick’s power and mobility would mark him out as a No 8 instead of a lock.
Their whole country is invested in the All Blacks, physically and spiritually. We come from a tradition too, though, one which has climbed its way to the second rung of world rugby on the back of four professional teams. Our days of deferring to anybody, no matter how much we respect them, are over.
Still, I believe New Zealand will have enough to get over the line tomorrow. And between now and the World Cup they will only improve.
● Donncha O’Callaghan won 94 Ireland caps and played on two Lions tours