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Four players who paved the way for Irish success against the All Blacks

By Adam Julian
Tadhg Furlong of Ireland, centre, and Iain Henderson celebrate winning a scrum penalty during the 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France in Paris, France. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Since Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time on a historic day at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2016, the emerald green has soared to become the best team in the world.


Ireland has won 67 of their last 83 internationals since that meritorious success, including four victories against the All Blacks. Their 2-1 series victory in New Zealand last year is part of a 17-match winning streak. For the All Blacks, it was their first defeat in a home series in 28 years.

Despite taking 111 years to record an initial win against the All Blacks, Ireland always had players who could produce problems for New Zealand.

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Tom Kiernan – The wily full-back, known as ‘the Grey Fox’, was Ireland’s most-capped player when he retired in 1973. He had 54 appearances and scored 158 points. As captain of Ireland, he led his country to 16 victories in 24 internationals, and a 10-10 draw against New Zealand which until Chicago 2016 was the best result Ireland had achieved against the All Blacks.

Kiernan might be best known as the coach of Munster who beat the All Blacks 12-0 in 1978, possibly the most famous game in Irish rugby history, so notorious it’s been immortalised by John Breen’s hit play Alone It Stands and the best-selling book Stand Up and Fight: When Munster Beat the All Blacks by Alan English.

Kiernan spent weeks studying video of the All Blacks and the atmosphere at Thomond Park was fever pitch. When centre Seamus Dennison smashed All Blacks winger Stu Wilson in the opening minutes it was reported, “that got the crowd’s dander up and showed they (the All Blacks) were only human.” Wilson later quipped, “We were lucky to score nil.”

Blindside flanker Christy Cantillon scored the only try of the match chasing down a chip ahead by first-five Tony Ward who dropped two goals and kicked a conversion.


Tragically, halfback Donal Canniffe (2 caps) was informed his father had died suddenly during the match. Lansdowne lock Moss Keane was the most accomplished Munster player. He played 11 consecutive Five Nations campaigns for Ireland.

The All Blacks didn’t concede a try in their next 10 games after the Munster defeat and became the first New Zealand team to win a Grand Slam with a tour record of 17-1.

Kiernan coached Ireland to a Triple Crown in 1982, their first since 1948. He was a leading administrator and Irish rugby writer Edmund van Esbeck reported:

“In every facet of the game he embraced he made a profound impact. Kiernan’s place at the pinnacle of Irish rugby will not depend on tradition, legend, hearty, or deceptive and exaggerated claims. The facts speak for themselves, for his has been a career without equal in the history of Irish rugby.”



Tony O’Reilly – Dashing winger, and once the richest man in Ireland, Tony O’Reilly holds the record for the most tries by a British and Irish Lion with 37. On the 1959 tour of New Zealand, he was mesmerising, scoring a record 17 tries in 17 games, including two in the Tests.

The 59 Lions were hugely popular for their expansive approach to the game. Despite scoring four tries to nil in the first Test in Dunedin, six Don Clarke penalties gave the hosts an 18-17 victory. The Lions were well beaten in the next two internationals, but an O’Reilly try helped the tourists win 11-8 at Eden Park.

O’Reilly later became a gifted and entertaining after dinner speaker, well-known for his cheeky barbs at the All Blacks.

Mike Gibson When Mike Gibson, a lawyer by trade, retired in 1977 he was Ireland’s most capped player with 81 Tests and had been part of Lions tours in 1966, 1968, 1971, 1974 and 1977.

Sir Colin Meads remarked, “Gibson’s presence in the Lions back-line was the most frustrating influence of all.”

Andy Leslie conceded after the 1971 Lions tour which saw the tourists win their only Test series in New Zealand and 22 of 24 games overall.

“At both Petone and Wellington, we started to approach the game more like the Lions. We moved the ball more and that created more enjoyment and success.”

With his intelligent reading of the game and superior skill, Gibson helped revolutionise midfield play.

He didn’t drink or smoke and he rarely ventured out with teammates. He looked at his diet and he had his own sprint coach. He was an early spark of professionalism.

Gibson was part of the Irish team that drew 10-10 with the All Blacks in 1973 as well as the second-five in the famous 23-11 victory by the Barbarians over the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park.

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Tadhg Furlong – Ireland has won five of their last eight Tests against the All Blacks.  With 25 wins in 29 Tests, Johnny Sexton has one of the best records of any captain in Test rugby at present. The Jamie Stockdale try in Dublin in 2018 was glittering, and Peter O’Mahony’s late turnover in 2021 sealed a 29-20 victory. What about the story of Jamison Gibson Park? Exactly a month younger than TJ Perenara he could hardly get a look in at representative level in New Zealand, so he departed to Ireland and has three victories against the All Blacks under his belt.

It’s doubtful anyone has been as influential in Ireland’s success though as tighthead prop Furlong. He has started in all five wins against the All Blacks and started the second Test for the British and Irish Lions in Wellington in 2017. Mobile, skilful and strong on the carry, he’s a beast in the scrums, the rock holding Ireland together. When asked what it’s like to play the All Blacks he said.

“It’s a tough question to answer. You always fear the All Blacks in the way that if you don’t man up and meet them head-on-head it’s a tough day at the office.”

All Blacks Record Since Chicago 2016

Played: 87
Won: 64
Lost: 18
Drawn: 5


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Warner 250 days ago

Taringa whakarongo kia huri , kia mau.
Black Black Black Black
That’s world number one done and dusted.
World number two France will get rolled .
Semis here we come , that’s two nil Southern Hemisphere , SA will make three nil .
Ka nate
Ka matel

Mark 250 days ago

At least we dont have to hear the Irish arrogance anymore 🙄

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Flankly 10 hours ago
Resilient Irish will test Springboks despite provincial setbacks

The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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