Monday, March 12, 2007

Irish Rugby Awaits Its D-Day

The Irish rugby team has been delivered a second chance by England’s shock defeat of France yesterday. After the disappointment of the loss against France, the team gets another chance to win the Championship and finally achieve the potential of the greatest generation Irish rugby has ever seen, and perhaps ever will.

The stakes are simple. If Ireland win in Rome, Ireland will have done all that can be asked of them this Monday morning. Lose, and the cheerleaders in the media will finally have to admit that they have been derelict in their duty of not asking harsher questions of the regime as to why they are so happy to settle for second best in the Championship three years in a row, and to humiliate themselves by celebrating trophies – the Triple Crown – that have gone the way of the dodo since the advent of professionalism.

Technically, Ireland could beat Italy and still not win the Championship, but that would be only on points difference, and points difference is not a satisfactory way of deciding anything, least of all a Championship that gives each team only five games. The old system of joint Champions was much more satisfactory and much more in keeping with the ethos of the game. However, as An Spailpín Fánach has been critical of the regime he will concede a win over the Italians in Rome as definitive proof that the Irish are not chokers, as their accusers – most noticeably that lion-hearted hooker for Harlequins, England and the Lions, Brian Moore - has claimed.

If Ireland lose, however, then it is quite clear that the team are chokers. Ireland should have blown Scotland away on Saturday – we are talking about the third best team in the world here, aren’t we? Isn’t that what the nation has been told? Yet the Scottish fell on their own claymores in the last ten minutes, conceding stupid penalties that Ronan O’Gara was able to convert. What lead to this? Why were Ireland so poor?

The question of an assault that may or may not have been perpetrated on Ronan O’Gara has sidelined the Irish media in their post-match analysis of that Irish performance – not that sidelining those fans with typewriters was anything like a challenge. Thuggery in international rugby is nothing new – anybody that thinks it is ought to ask themselves why Richard Sharp had his cheek smashed by Francois “Mannetjies” Roux when the Lions played Northern Transvaal before the first test of the 1962 tour of South Africa, or where the sportsmanship was in the Lions’ own infamous 99 call twelve years later. What is unusual about skulduggery in rugby is talking about it.

Rightly or wrongly, “that sort of thing” was regarded as part and parcel of the game. It had to do with a particular kind of double-think; it was perfectly acceptable for a gentleman, playing a gentleman’s game, to punch, kick, gouge or otherwise assault an opponent, but it was never acceptable for a gentleman to accuse an opponent of punching, kicking, gouging or illegally assaulting an opponent because a gentleman would never dream of punching, gouging, kicking or illegally assaulting an opponent. Hypocrisy reigned. An Spailpín is not defending the indefensible, but simply outlining the code which Eddie O’Sullivan transgressed in his post-match accusations.

The worrying thing about the O’Sullivan accusation is that it is neither one thing or another. O’Sullivan knows the name of the player whom he suspects of strangling O’Gara at the bottom of a ruck, but he won’t name him. He has, however, chosen to go half-public on the issue, and in being neither one thing nor the other he has, like Lear, cleft his crown in two halves and left nothing in the middle. If Eddie wants to go public, he should go all the way or else keep his yap shut and let the rules and conventions of the game sort out the issue. To do otherwise is to kick up the dust in what could be seen as a deeply cynical exercise in media management, and worse, it make the Irish look like crybabies, something they have never been, even at their lowest ebb.

Eddie O’Sullivan likes to portray himself as an outsider to the ivied elites of Irish rugby, but it was clever politicking on O’Sullivan’s part that got him the job in the first place – at the cost of his predecessor, Warren Gatland, who, as a New Zealand native and a coach of Connacht here, could not have been more of an outsider if he had been from the planet Mars. O’Sullivan’s critics – those few whom the coach hasn’t been able to get on message or off the rugby beat – maintain that O’Sullivan’s notoriously conservative selection policies and game plans have put his own win/loss record ahead of the development and progress of the national side. Saturday will tell, among many other things, whether or not Eddie is all mouth and no trousers.

Ireland are holding aces coming into Saturday’s game. Italy are enjoying their greatest ever season, their first ever season with two wins to show for their troubles, but there are question marks over the quality of both wins and – stop me if you’ve heard this before – Ireland are third best team in the world. Ireland have lost Paul O’Connell, who cannot be replaced, of course, but the French have been without Fabien Pelous for the entire campaign, and there is no whining to be heard from them over that. Ireland have a golden generation and, in their captain, Brian O’Driscoll, unquestionably Ireland’s greatest ever player. Most talented, most committed, most brilliant. It’s now or never for the Irish team – Rome awaits, and it’ll be thumbs up or down by the final whistle in the Stadio Flamino on Saint Patrick’s Day. Let honour’s thought reign solely in the breast of every man, and we shall finally see what this team – and their media-happy coach – are made of.

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