Monday, March 19, 2007

Per Iter Tenebricosum - Irish Rugby Still Treads the Shadowy Path

The Piper HickieWhile the media snow job on the Irish rugby team and rugby establishment continues unabated (“Cruel Call Rains on Irish Parade,” “Endgame Cannot Really Tarnish Glory that was Rome,” free poster in tomorrow morning’s Independent, and so on ad nauseum), at least the players know what’s going on. The piper Hickie, that fine old under-appreciated servant of Irish rugby, is ruefully philosophical in this morning’s Irish Times, while Ronan O’Gara was being brutally honest in his assessment in today’s Indo.

"I don't think I'd be jumping around if we won the championship to be honest. It'd be good but it wouldn't be great. Not too bothered with it really, if that doesn't sound defeatist. Our goal was to win the Grand Slam. It's all ifs and buts now. We didn't do the business in Croke Park. That was our aim."

The outhalf – and a good bet for player of the Six Nations – is calling it as it is. As is the typically trenchant Brian Moore in the Daily Telegraph – Ireland were the best team in the Six Nations and have come away with nothing. And all the colour posters in all the newspapers in all the world won’t change that.

The most interesting analysis of why that is comes from a surprising source. An Spailpín has always harboured a deep distrust for the former Leinster and Scotland coach Matt Williams, who has a bit too much of the Guy Smileys for your correspondent’s liking, but Williams is on the money in today’s Irish Times. Williams questions why it is that the team is so inconsistent and lays it at the door of the coach. Now, it could be that Williams has a little agenda going on (he’s always been loyal to Keith Gleeson in his columns – Williams is not a man to forget, it seems), but his remarks about the inconsistency of the team being put at the door of the coach make a lot of sense.

“For me, the responsibility stops with the coaching staff. Rather than alleviate pressure, they seem to create it, thus inhibiting performances. They need to create an environment that allows the players to perform. We have to assume the drop in performance is a down to a problem at management level. So while taking credit for the good days they must stop denying the fault exists and attempt to address it.”

Why does Paul O’Connell always play better for Munster than for Ireland? Why does Geordan Murphy play better for Leicester than for Ireland? Why haven’t we seen more players given a run?

The fact of the matter is that Ireland will not win the World Cup. This is not a reflection of the team, its talent or even of its coach – it’s simply a reflection of the format of the competition and the shallow pool of players from which Ireland can call. The World Cup has a profoundly high player attrition rate – this is why Graham Henry, whose New Zealand team have the biggest and best pick of players in the world, has been looking for a thirty man team, rather than just fifteen. Henry knows that if Dan Carter or Richie McCaw or Jerry Collins gets hurt he needs men who can step up, because to go the World Cup and hope your key players won’t get hurt is naïve in the extreme.

Ireland don’t have that luxury. If John Hayes gets hurt there is nobody to replace him. Ireland might as well phone in the sickie and go home if they lose Hayes – Atlas with the world on his shoulders is the only comparison to the big man from Bruff. Did you notice that when Eddie O’Sullivan was running the bench on Saturday that Hayes stayed on for the eighty minutes? That’s how much he’s needed.

And because of that, because Eddie O’Sullivan and his staff must know that Ireland doesn’t have the player resources to win the World Cup, you can forgive him concentrating on the Six Nations. You could even forgive him for not experimenting with players in the Autumn internationals. But when he puts all his money on the Six Nations he has to come away with something and Ireland have, sadly, come away from this Six Nations with nothing. Nada. And that is a bitter pill to swallow. This is a golden generation of Irish rugby, with Brian O’Driscoll, An Drisceolach Gan Smal, its captain and inspiration, peerless in the pantheon of the greats. It deserves better than hard luck stories.

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