Matt Williams: Time for Ireland fans to find Aviva voice for Springboks challenge

Performances in New Zealand have been inspirational; for this game, supporters must play their part

Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Rod McQueen, Clive Woodward, Kitch Christie, Bob Dwyer and Jake White are familiar names who coached their teams to winning the World Cup. A name that is often forgotten is that of the great Sir Brian Lochore, who reunited New Zealand with their national team to win the first World Cup in 1987.

For much of the 1980s, rugby in New Zealand was in the midst of a self-inflicted crisis. Against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Kiwis, the New Zealand union (NZRFU) allowed the Springboks to tour in 1981 in a decision that was seen as supportive of the racist South African apartheid government.

This divided New Zealand society to such an extent that across that tour it is estimated that more than 150,000 people protested at 28 venues, resulting in 1,500 people being charged with offences. During the final Test a light plane buzzed Eden Park, dangerously dropping flour bombs during play, one knocking the New Zealand prop Gary Knight to the ground.

Undeterred, the NZRFU was determined to send the New Zealand team to South Africa in 1985 until the government stepped in, forcing their high court to intervene and stop the tour. This resulted in the formation of a rebel tour group called The Cavaliers. Comprising most of the top New Zealand players at the time, they toured South Africa in 1986.


This split the New Zealand rugby community asunder. A significant majority of New Zealanders stopped supporting the famous black jersey.

It was a slice of coaching genius. The players were going back to their people because they needed their people to be part of them

At the beginning of 1987 Lochore understood that a national team that does not have the support of their people could only perform at only a fraction of its true potential and decided on a course of action to bring the team back into the arms of the New Zealand people. All games during the World Cup were to be played at home, so Lochore arranged for training sessions to be held at local schools with the doors open to the public.

After their final pool match in Wellington, the Kiwi players assumed they would be immediately flying to Christchurch for their quarter-final. To their surprise, Lochore put them on a bus and took them to his local pub in the rural town of Eketahuna.

The New Zealand hooker, Sean Fitzpatrick, tells the story that the players thought it was a great idea, that they were going to have Sunday beers with the coach at his local pub. When they arrived, the pub was surrounded by farm trucks, sheep dogs and children.

Inside was packed with local families. Lochore then called out each player’s name and introduced them to a family. Six days before they were to play in a first quarter-final, the players were billeted out to stay with farming families on the rural North Island.

It was a slice of coaching genius. The players were going back to their people because they needed their people to be part of them. The players loved it and so did the media. The public got the message and recognised the teams’ gesture.

Their coach was healing a deep wound.

Lochore’s coaching was exceptional because he masterminded the process of getting a divided nation to reunite behind his team.

As all of this was unfolding, it is hard to conceive that Nelson Mandela remained a convicted enemy of the South African government, known only as Prisoner 46664 and imprisoned in an isolation cell on Robben Island.

Next Saturday at the Aviva the Springboks jersey will have Mandela’s prison number embroidered into its fabric. A reminder of Mandela’s legacy, woven deeply into the South African national conscience.

While South Africa still has seemingly insurmountable political problems, Mandela’s example of support for the Springboks and national unity has continued and the South African public remains united behind their team and inspirational captain Siya Kolisi.

Last summer, the Irish rugby team inspired their own country. Winning in New Zealand has placed Ireland in the stratosphere of elite international teams. Despite what the haters peddle, the three-Test series victory in New Zealand is the greatest performance by an Irish sporting team in history.

Ireland now sits alongside France, New Zealand and South Africa at the pinnacle of world rugby and winning the World Cup next year is now a real possibility. The process of winning a World Cup does not begin at the tournament. It starts years earlier as teams gain belief through victory at giant milestone matches along their journey.

On Saturday Ireland take on the world champions. Defeating the Springboks is a must because they have been in the scenario before and lost. After defeating New Zealand in 2018, Ireland were catapulted into contention for the 2019 World Cup. In the opening round of the 2019 Six Nations against England, both the team and their people were overconfident to the point of arrogance. That day Eddie Jones’s team crushed any hope of success in the World Cup. Ireland simply never recovered from that defeat.

South Africa pose the same threat to Irish hopes as England did in 2019. There is no doubt that at their best Ireland are capable of winning. Over the last 12 months, this team have played high-quality, high-tempo rugby at a standard the public has not witnessed before.

The lack of any heart-pounding atmosphere rests solely on the shoulders of those whose bums are on the seats

Their performances in New Zealand have inspired the nation. Next Saturday the Irish people must play their part. Recently the Aviva has descended into a quiet, passive, green space, where people go to have a few pints and watch some rugby. I don’t like saying this, but compared to the electricity that the old Lansdowne Road generated, the Aviva has become a dud.

The problem does not rest in the architecture or the bricks and mortar of the stadium. The lack of any heart-pounding atmosphere rests solely on the shoulders of those whose bums are on the seats.

In last year’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse, with the Red Army in full voice, the Aviva was transformed. It became a noisy, singing, passionate, screaming bowl of energy that delivered inspiration to the Munster players.

We should be able to say the exact same thing every time Ireland play at home. The opposition team should feel intimidated.

Last summer Ireland travelled to an inhospitable shore and won an iconic victory. Now they have returned home to compete against the current world champions with the World Cup as their distant goal.

It is time for the Irish supporters to find their voice. The rugby community must channel the spirit of the old Lansdowne Road roar to inspire their team, simply because their team has inspired them.

Brian Lochore understood that the people have a giant part to play in the success of their national team. Nelson Mandela believed a nation can be inspired by its team.

At this point, I believe that Sir Brian and President Mandela would suggest it’s now over to all of you.