Simon Easterby reunites with Lions jersey at Jerry Collins clubhouse

Simon Easterby had often wondered what happened to the British and Irish Lions shirt he swapped with Jerry Collins after the second Test in Wellington 17 years ago.

He discovered it this week while Ireland were training at the home of Northern United Rugby Football Club, or Norths as it is more colloquially known.

Their ground in Porirua, north of Wellington, is now named Jerry Collins Stadium in honor of one of their most famous sons who grew up in the housing estate across the road.

Collins, a 48-cap All Black rower born in Samoa and bred by Porirua, was tragically killed aged 34 alongside his wife Alanna Madill in a car crash in the south of France seven years ago. years, but his legacy lives on at the stadium. and in the Nords clubhouse.

Easterby had trained with the Lions on the same ground on the 2005 tour before that second Test, which is remembered primarily for Dan Carter’s virtuoso performance at flyhalf, and a 33-point run at “The Cake Tin” which propelled him into the pantheon of the All Blacks and world rugby.

For the Lions, it was a trying night in the New Zealand capital on a calamitous tour and there is a picture of Irish duo Easterby, wearing Collins’ jerseys, and Donncha O’Callaghan looking puzzled as they watched the post-match scene as the home side celebrated their decisive 48-18 series win.

Returning to Norths 17 this week as Ireland’s defense coach, Easterby grabbed the Lions shirt he swapped for Collins’ All Blacks number six, framed and fitted among a collection of ‘former Hurricanes, Ospreys and Narbonne flanker’s shirts from a brilliant career.

The old-school clubhouse holds rich memories of the club’s top talent, with an honor roll including All Blacks and Blacks Ferns, minor internationals and Sevens representatives.

Hooker Hika Reid is there, as is Paekakariki Express Christian Cullen, who left the Hurricanes for Munster in 2003. There’s also 2015 World Cup-winning scrum-half TJ Perenara, who still upholds the tradition of Nords after facing Ireland in midweek as captain of the Maori All Blacks.

Yet it is Jerry Collins Stadium that bears the most telling legacy of an All Blacks great.

What Collins would have done with the All Blacks side beaten in Dunedin last Saturday is anyone’s guess, but for many of his fellow Kiwis who witnessed the 32-24 defeat in the second Test, the current situation is alarming.

It has yet to reach existential levels, although a second defeat in eight days against the Irish this morning in Wellington could send some All Blacks fans to the brink and all bets will be off if a similar fate awaits the New Zealand with its opening. Rugby League matches taking them to South Africa and back-to-back Tests against the Springboks in Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit) and Johannesburg.

The first match against the world champions is three weeks away and already speculation is circulating that a series loss to Ireland could spell the end for head coach Ian Foster.

The defeat of Dunedin last Saturday has shaken All Blacks supporters. Former Munster and Ireland rower Alan Quinlan, here working for Sky Sports, reported that some Irish fans he spoke to after the match suffered verbal abuse from a small minority inside from Forsyth Barr Stadium as Ireland kept the series alive. the field discipline of Foster’s men imploded.

Still, the majority of the responses to the defeat were more reasoned and focused solely on New Zealand’s problems. The second Test defeat was Foster’s third in four games following their back-to-back defeats to Ireland in Dublin and France in Paris last November and as it sent the All Blacks to fourth in the World Rugby Rankings, equaling their all-time low. point in the disconcertingly constructed leaderboard, it sent the Kiwi vibe even deeper.

For those who believed their first 42-19 win over the Irish at Eden Park on July 2 was a return to normal as Ireland’s shortcomings once captain Johnny Sexton was pulled for an injury assessment in the lead over 30 minutes were ruthlessly exposed by secondary intent. backtracking to winning ways, events since have injected a sobering dose of reality.

Foster’s winning percentage of just under 70% since being promoted to attacking coach to succeed two-time World Cup winner Steve Hansen after the 2019 campaign has been reported with regularity and the newspaper the best-selling in the country, the Auckland-based Herald, described their team’s performance. as “passive and vapid” while taking aim at Foster and his coaching staff.

Lamenting the lack of a definite game plan, Herald rugby writer Gregor Paul wrote: “The All Blacks took a step forward last week, they made at least two if not three in Dunedin and although their list of faults is long and comprehensive, the workings of their demise could be summed up by saying that they lacked physicality and imagination.

“The All Blacks were passive and vapid, saved from humiliation only by their miraculous scrambling defense which was brilliant. But the All Blacks cannot survive in the thin air of Test rugby spending most of the game on their own goal line and given their relentless backsliding in the art of muscle building, it is now increasingly difficult to see how the coaching staff can survive.”

It’s not just the New Zealand media. Conversations with local supporters and, naturally, Wellington taxi drivers, are peppered with criticism of the current setup. They all inevitably come to the same conclusion, that Foster should leave and that New Zealand rugby must act as soon as possible to ensure the All Blacks have a decent preparation for next year’s World Cup under the new regime.

And beneath it all there is an undercurrent of resignation that the once seemingly unstoppable All Blacks have now hit the pads, overwhelmed when they were once the most calculated and cunning players and coaches in the game. the planet.

Yet perhaps the most significant observation came from a member of the Irish squad not even on Matchday 23. Ulster flanker Nick Timoney made an exceptional change and scored at Sky Stadium last Tuesday as an Irish VX managed by Keith Earls beat the Maori All Blacks. 32-24. It was Maori’s first loss to an Irish side in four attempts as this tour side made more history to keep the Irish momentum on track ahead of Saturday morning’s third and final Test on the same ground.

As he shared his thoughts on the game, Timoney was asked if Irish players have now reached the stage where they are no longer afraid to face New Zealand players, as they had been so long before that first victory against the All Blacks at Soldier Field. , Chicago, in 2016.

“Look, with every good team, you have an element of fear of what they might do to you,” Timoney said.

“But I certainly think the aura that maybe there’s something completely special or different around New Zealand is, like I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but when you beat a team a few times, you kind of realize they’re human we’re human and certain parts of the game will dictate the outcome Dominate those parts of the game you’ll win and I think that realization has certainly hit Irish rugby in recent years in this band.

“There are guys who have been pretty much even and beaten the All Blacks throughout their careers in international rugby now, whereas 10 or 15 years ago it was kind of mystical thing that maybe couldn’t be done. So I think it’s gone.

Another loss on Saturday morning and that feeling could be contagious.

Charles P. Patton