A year ago we published the story of the Nearly Men, those in the outrageously talented 1992 NZ Secondary Schools rugby team who rubbed shoulders with greatness without quite achieving it themselves. Half a world away, an Irishman named Dave Moore was reading. This is the story of the team who should have beaten them.
We called them The Nearly Men – those who played in the shadow of greatness for the seismically talented 1992 New Zealand Secondary Schoolboys team, yet who never went on to play for their chosen countries.
On the other side of the world a group of men of a similar vintage read with interest. If you want a cute name for them also, you could do worse than The Oh-So-Close Men.
A few days after The Nearly Men was published, Dave Moore wrote. He was a lock in the Ireland Schoolboys team who, at the end of a life-changing seven-week tour, became the first team to challenge the New Zealand side that contained Jonah Lomu, Jeff Wilson, Carlos Spencer, Trevor Leota, Carl Hoeft and Jeremy Stanley, among many other fine talents.
They nearly won. So, so nearly, but we'll get back to that.
"At 18 years of age, touring New Zealand for those two months was an unbelievable, never forgotten experience," Moore wrote. "Sadly these tours don't seem to be carried out anymore. There was a very strong bond between all the players and it's that bond that has strengthened in recent times."
The reason for that was tragedy, more specifically the death of their star No 8 Anthony Foley, who suffered a pulmonary oedema in his sleep in a Paris hotel room in 2016. It's a ghoulish observation, but it meant the two No 8s in that match had died within a year of each other, Lomu having suffered a fatal heart attack in 2015.
"Anthony was most vocal in making sure we all regularly met up so to honour his wishes we did a charity cycle for three days around his home town of Killaloe. We managed to raise over €12,000 to give to the charity that bears his name," Moore said.
Ireland won seven out of eight provincial matches on that tour, losing narrowly to Hawkes Bay, before the "test" against New Zealand. They knew who to look out for.
"When we arrived in Invercargill to play Southland we were told of the boy wonder Jeff Wilson, multi-talented in cricket and rugby and destined for greater things," Moore said. "So much was the hype that the headline story in the local paper was that Jeff had some of his rugby gear stolen out of the changing room while he was out training. There can't have been much important news down in Southland.
"We also heard of Jeremy Stanley obviously as he was son of Joe and he lived up to his father's reputation, who was somewhat of a childhood hero for some of our backs. Jonah did stick out also, mainly because he was bigger than any of us in our pack. We were all 18 years of age and he would have only been 16 year old at the time."
Still, the Declan Kidney-coached team caught the NZ Schools at the right time. You watch footage of the match now and it was clear the team in black had never played together before. There was the odd moment of individual brilliance, mainly from Lomu, Leota and blindside Matthew Grace, but few passages of cohesion.
Played at Rugby Park before it became Yarrow Stadium, Wilson kicks off and New Zealand would be 13-0 down before he touched the ball again. The Irish forwards splintered the New Zealand pack at will, Foley scoring off a lineout drive.
The match was played as a curtain-raiser to Taranaki's second division clash with Thames Valley in what would be a championship winning season for the home team. Kevin "Smiley" Barrett was among Taranaki's try scorers that day but if a 1-year-old Beauden was among the crowd, it is impossible to tell from the wobbly footage.
New Zealand came into the game late in the first half, Carlos Spencer scoring two tries from second-five eighth, with future Samoa first-five Ngapaku Ngapaku preferred at No 10.
The second half was largely a highlight-free zone. As the crowd built and the weather deteriorated, Ireland kept kicking themselves further ahead through the boot of John Philpott. In echoes of Johnny Sexton in 2013, he had the chance to ice the game with a handy penalty late on, but left it hanging short.
Lomu's teenage power and Wilson's conversion drew New Zealand within one, but sand was fast leaking through the hourglass.
In a frenetic passage of play New Zealand dropped the ball cold in their own half yet Ireland regathered it and the referee ruled that advantage was over. When Ireland stalled New Zealand were awarded a scrum put-in, and pressed inside the Ireland half. They were awarded a penalty and Wilson, who had shanked a kick horribly in the first half, lined up from wide out.
In the retelling, this has been turned into a sideline kick with a gale blowing. That might be dramatic licence because the truth is slightly more mundane. It was five to 10m in from touch on the right side for a right-footer and while there was a decent breeze, it was blowing in the right direction for the kick.
Even so, when Wilson balanced the ball on the mound of sand – no fancy tees in those days – it was a 30-70 shot at best. Goldie being Goldie, he nailed it, with the appropriately contrasting triumph and disaster reactions enveloping both teams as the flags were raised and the fulltime whistle sounded.
"Let's just say they were lucky to get away with the win," Moore says.
New Zealand would be a profoundly better side when they next faced international opposition, demolishing Australian Schools 31-8 in Sydney.
Ireland, meanwhile, would return home to bouquets of their own.
"The IRFU were delighted with the success of our tour overall, mainly because the senior team toured a couple of months prior to us and were thrashed by a number of teams including Auckland by 62-7. It was drilled into us by Declan Kidney that we were going to show the talent that was on show at schoolboy level in Ireland and we were not going to embarrass ourselves like the senior team.
"Following our tour, the IRFU formed the academy which was a squad of players that were to be fast tracked to international level. Foley, Jeremy Davidson, Jonathan Bell and Conor McGuiness from that side all made their international debuts in their early 20s."
Ten players in that New Zealand side would play for the All Blacks, two for Samoa. Eevn someone as brilliant as future All Black flanker Andrew Blowers could not make the side. It was an outrageous collection of schoolboy talent.
But for 79-and-a-half minutes, they were second best to Ireland.
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