Monday, September 10, 2007

Namibia's Call

Dorse - dul amu aige, dul amuAnyone with a heart or a knowledge of Irish rugby history was surely cheering for Namibia about ten minutes into the second half of their World Cup Group D opening match against Ireland last night. For the vast majority of the history of Irish rugby, Ireland were Namibia – whipping boys. Cannon fodder. Chum for the sharks. Willie John McBride, gloriously leading the Irish once more in that thrilling O2 ad, didn’t know what it was like to win in international rugby until he toured South Africa with the Lions in 1967, and he’d been playing since 1965.

Not only that, but Ireland have been just as much on the end of bizarre refereeing decisions as the Namibians were last night, when the pushover try was dubious, and Jerry Flannery’s try was clearly not a try at all. Remember Roger Quittenton’s somewhat heterodox refereeing of Ireland v Scotland in Murrayfield in 1987? Or JPR Williams’ infamous “professional foul” on Mike Gibson in Lansdowne Road in 1977, when Ireland were in with a shot at a triple crown when winning it still meant something? The mighty JPR was booed in Dublin for the rest of his time with Wales after that blot on an otherwise lustrous career.

So chapeaux!, then, to the Namibian performance in Bordeaux last night. They came with nothing, and they gave it everything. One of the shabbier aspects of the Rugby World Cup since its inception is how so much of the group stages have been about the strong crushing the weak. Namibia went into that game last night as lambs to the slaughter; instead of offering their necks, they claimed the cleaver and went for the butcher. Good for them – honour and glory have been legislated more or less out of the modern game of rugby, but Namibia showed that maybe the ancient virtues still have some role in William Webb Ellis’ game.

As for Ireland, well now. For all the rending of garments that will be going on in the media until Ireland face Georgia (native heath of Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, aka Uncle Joe Stalin, incidentally) on Saturday, your faithful narrator can see exactly how the rest of this World Cup will pan out. Ireland will beat Georgia, even if Ronan O’Gara or Le Drique don’t play. Ireland will then go on to lose narrowly to France, still sore after the Argentine ambush, to set up a winner take it all game against Argentina, who have the Group win in their crosshairs and a blissfully sweet quarter-final against Scotland awaiting if they can get past Paddy.

The DVD and commemorative coffee-table books will record what happens next at the Parc des Princes, a venue where Ireland have never won in all their visits there. We’ll see footage of Paul O’Connell beating his chest, and Le Drique making a passionate speech about sure we’re good but WE COULD BE GREAT!, and Denis Leamy will throttle a small donkey, just for the thrill of it. Then it’ll be nip and tuck all the way, no quarter asked for or given, with Argentina leading by two points as the clock reaches eighty minutes. Then little Peter Stringer, in a diving pass from a crumbling scrum at the 22, whips it out to O’Gara who has slipped back into the pocket. O’Gara attempts the drop kick – he misshits, but it’s still wobbling, tumbling, bobbling for the posts – and it’s over! Ireland win! It’s Ireland’s greatest ever day at the Parc des Princes!

Of course, Argentina still go through, due to superior points scoring difference, but it’s been a great day for Ireland. A philosophical Eddie O’Sullivan, coyly flirting with Miriam O’Callaghan / Ryan Tubridy on TV while selling his World Cup Diary just in time for Christmas, philosophically remarks on what a legendary night that was, and how it all made up for the Namibian disappointment. The nation smiles along with the little feller, comfortable once more with our place in the world.

How does An Spailpín Fánach know? Because that’s exactly the sort of fools’ gold that’s been at the foot of the Irish rainbow for the past four years, that’s how.

Brent Pope was talking to Michael Corcoran on Morning Ireland this morning, and Popey was talking about how the iffy performances against Italy and Scotland were not just “training matches” after all. We can go further back than that.

Remember when Ireland were forty points down at half-time against the French in Paris last year and ran in a few tries in the second half against a French team whose minds were strictly on their post match pints of Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Remember how a twelve point hammering was presented as some sort of triumph?

Looking back at Ireland’s season this year, the only match result with any vague legitimacy or credibility was the win in Cardiff. The autumn internationals were a joke – South Africa’s performance yesterday against Samoa puts their display in Dublin in distressing perspective. Paddy Wallace was acclaimed as an international out-half when he can’t even play there for Ulster because he had a good game against the “Pacific Islands,” an “international team” that isn’t even at the World Cup, which means they’re not even as good as Portugal.

Ireland choked against France in Dublin and choked against Italy, where those two late tries cost them their first Championship in over twenty years. An abject display in Murrayfield was glossed over by the coach making a sensational accusation of attempted murder against a Scottish player whom he didn’t have the bottle to name.

As for the win over England, that generated so much blather and hot air and nonsense – that was Ireland’s fourth straight win against England. Beating England at rugby has been an annual event for the past four years. Celebrating that like it was some sort of achievement is like Kilkenny whooping about beating Wexford in hurling. It’s ridiculous.

Funnily enough, if the historians of Irish rugby have any interest in writing the true history of this golden generation, rather than repeating the pieties of a gullible public and a media-obsessed coach, they may find that the high water mark of this golden generation occurred a little before three o’clock in the old Lansdowne Road on March 31st, 2003, when England arrived to take on the Irish for a winner-takes-it-all Grand Slam decider, which remains as close as the Golden Generation has come to winning something worthwhile. But Martin Johnson, that giant of a man and of a rugby player, stood his ground before the game had even started, and he signalled to his men that day that England were not to be pushed around. Ireland got the signal too, and were blown out of it, 42-6. If you were picking a team to play rugby against the very demons of the hottest pit of Hell, Johnno is the man you’d have as captain, as he proved that day in Dublin, and again in leading England to the World Cup later that year. That England’s decline has occurred after the big man hung up his boots is no co-incidence.

As for Ireland, they’ve been content with moral victories since that high water mark, living in the comfort zone, like a team who have had a vision of the Eternal footman holding their coats, and snickering. Just like the Namibians were happy with their moral victory last night, so happy at being beaten by only fifteen points that they weren’t even annoyed at being screwed by the referee, and even had the dash to go for a tries when the sensible, professional thing would have been to kick for points. Somehow, the Irish moral victories of the past four years seem a little hollow compared to that.

Ciarán Fitzgerald remarked in the Setanta studio last night that there was no leadership from the senior players. Thing is, they’re all senior players. Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Denis Leamy were the least capped players in the team last night, and they have fifty caps between them. That doesn’t make them innocents abroad.

Far more apposite is the image of the muck and blood-spattered Fitzy himself, eyes popping out of his head in passion and fury, asking the Irish lineout if they had any pride in the final minutes of Ireland against England in Dublin in 1985. Time to ask the same question of the golden generation, and their coach.

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