Māori ABs coach - 'My fear was we'd get stage fright. We didn't'

Patrick McKendry
Source: 1News

Māori All Blacks coach Clayton McMillan has spoken of his pride as his young side held their nerve to play the attacking style of game in their big victory over Ireland that Māori rugby is renowned for despite the occasion and difficult handling conditions.

Māori All Blacks wing Shaun Stevenson outpaces Ireland No.10 Ciaran Frawley for his try.

The Māori over-ran the Irish in the first half at Waikato Stadium, scoring four tries to one as the scoreboard blew out to 32-10 at halftime before the visitors scored the only points in the second half – a converted try for No.8 Gavin Coombes.

Their victory was an early setback for the Irish ahead of their three-Test tour against the All Blacks and confidence will be high among the Māori that they can do it again in Wellington on July 12.

On an emotional night in which both sides paid tribute to the late Māori All Black wing Sean Wainui, the 32-17 win will rate as one of the Māori All Blacks’ best.

“We scored some great tries,” McMillan said. “I just have to applaud our guys for having the courage to play what we know here in New Zealand as Māori rugby – to give the ball some air and express yourself, so it was good to see that.

Read more: Māori All Blacks turn on the style to humble Ireland

“The first half was awesome, the second half reminds us that we still have some work to do.”

Ten of the Māori squad of 23 were debutants on Wednesday night and yet to a man played with a confidence and spirit far beyond their inexperience. Fullback Zarn Sullivan was particularly influential, but so was fellow newcomer Connor Garden-Bachop on the left wing and flanker Billy Harmon.

McMillan said: “We talk about deep footprints – when you come into this team you come in knowing there are some deep footprints to follow and the challenge for everyone coming in is to leave some deep ones, not those than can be washed away on the first tide.”

Co-captain Brad Weber, who got on the scoresheet along with Sullivan, excellent right wing Shaun Stevenson and strong running No.8 Cullen Grace, said: “We didn’t want to go into our shells and get involved in a kick battle. These games don’t come around very often. It’s my first time playing a Tier 1 nation in the Māori All Blacks jersey.

“We wanted to have a crack and back ourselves and some of our guys really showed that. A lot of debutants, but man, if they were nervous they certainly didn’t show it. They were brilliant.”

Asked to rank the victory’s significance, McMillan said: “That’s for other people to decide. Our job is just to try to make people proud through the way we play. If we play well then we inspire the next generation to want to follow in our footsteps as some great players have done for us.

“It would be a better subject to talk about if we get two wins in a couple of weeks.

“I love this team and have been fortunate to be involved for six years. I never saw myself coaching at this level of the game.

Māori All Blacks co-captain TJ Perenara and Ireland skipper Bundee Aki hongi after the match.

“I’m more proud for the boys – we’ve been waiting for this opportunity to play a Tier 1 nation for a long time. We got our opportunity and my biggest fear was we’d get stage fright on the biggest stage and we didn’t.”

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, who now must get his Test side up for the challenge of playing the All Blacks at Eden Park on Saturday, said: “The boys are disappointed. They feel they could have given a better account of themselves, certainly in the first half. The Māori team 100% deservedly won that game. Their skillset was pretty good in that first half insofar as the conditions were concerned.

“I’m proud of the way the boys came back. It could have been a landslide, the way the score was in the first half.”

Both Weber and his co-captain halfback partner TJ Perenara spoke with emotion about the influence of Wainui, who died last year in a car crash aged 26, on the team.

The Irish presented a green jersey with Wainui’s No.11 on the back before the match, and the Māori All Blacks performed their haka with Wainui’s image on the big screen behind them. Wainui's family collected the jersey from the middle of the pitch.

McMillan added: “I thought the gesture from Ireland was fantastic. What it highlights for me is that life is precious and to care for the people that are closest to you.

“When you’re in high performance sport it’s easy to get consumed in wins and losses and dollars and cents, and those things are important, but it certainly puts things in perspective when tragedies happen and you see a young family have to walk out there. As great as the gesture was, I wish we didn’t have to do it.”