Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Metal Fatigue - Has Irish Rugby's Golden Generation Turned to Rust?

Brian O'DriscollSo this is it, then. Butch and Sundance are in Bolivia, Sam and Ilsa are at the airport, Romeo and Juliet will live happily ever after at Mantua. Time is being called on Irish rugby’s Golden Generation, and this Six Nations Championship is surely their last hurrah, their last chance to finally close a deal.

Eddie O’Sullivan, head coach of the Irish rugby team, will name his starting XV for Ireland’s first game of the 2008 Six Nations at half-past one this afternoon, and Eddie is under a little bit of pressure – this time last year, he was Lions coach-elect; now, he’s a man with a reputation in tatters, facing an expectant nation and surely aware that two of his guests this year, Mr Nathan Hines of Scotland and Mr Warren Gatland of Wales, will be rather looking forward to renewing acquaintances with the loquacious Corkman.

So what’s Eddie to do? The sad fact is, there’s nothing he can do. O’Sullivan’s religious commitment to short term goals means that, as the nation expects change after the horrors of the World Cup campaign, Eddie now finds himself in the position of Old Mother Hubbard. Where he hopes to find the cupboard stacked to bursting with pastas, pulses and high carb foods, he finds only a few tins of Heinz beans, and a shameful packet of Super Noodles, hidden at the back for emergency munchies.

An Spailpín Fánach hadn’t quite realised just how very bare the cupboard is until the week before last, when a good friend of this blog and a great rugby man forwarded me his team to face Italy at Croke Park this coming Saturday. And what was noticeable about it was that the usual suspects were all there, just as they will be tomorrow when Eddie announces his team. Maybe Eoin Reddan will be in for Peter Stringer, even though Reddan suffered rather at Munster’s hands last Saturday week in Thomond Park; the lesson of the World Cup is that when something goes wrong, Strings is to blame it seems.

But otherwise, the team picks itself, really. Geordan Murphy may be as popular with Eddie O’Sullivan as Miss Angelina Jolie is with Miss Jennifer Aniston, but with the Piper Hickie retired and Shane Horgan injured, Murphy is there by process of elimination. Andrew Trimble on the other wing, Dorse and BOD in the centre, yadda yadda yadda. In the pack, despite the good press he gets (really, reading the Irish papers, one could be forgiven for getting the impression that the Leinster back row is comprised of Fionn MacCumhaill, Cúchulainn and Mannamán Mac Lir), chances are Jamie Heaslip will not start on Saturday, actually, and the only change will be Mick O’Driscoll understudying for Paul O’Connell.

So, although we can expect huffing and puffing about the team selection and questions about why Heaslip or Luke Fitzgerald aren’t starting, the fact is that while those young men may be playing well, they are not challenging the incumbents for their positions on the national team. At all. Brian O’Driscoll might be careworn and weak from toil and disappointment, but he’s still the most talented player in the Six Nations. He’s going nowhere. You could drop D’Arcy, put Trimble at twelve and one of either Rob Kearney or Luke Fitzgerald on the wing, but really, how much of a difference would it make?

Golden generations do not come this way often. Just for pig-iron, An Spailpín went surfing for the Irish team that started the Six Nations – or Five Nations, as it was then – against Scotland ten years ago, on February 7th, 1998. These are they:

Conor O’Shea; Richard Wallace, Kevin Maggs, Mark McCall, Denis Hickie; David Humprhies, Brian O’Meara; Reggie Corrigan, Keith Wood (c), Paul Wallace; Paddy Johns, Malcolm O’Kelly; David Corkery, Keith Dawson, Eric Miller.

Not quite a golden generation. And a controversial selection at the time, because of the amount of new and untested players – O’Shea, Maggs, Hickie, Humphries, O’Meara, O’Kelly, Dawson. Try picking a best-of team between those and the Irish XV that faced Argentina in the final game of the World Cup. Here’s my stab at it:

Girvan Dempsey; Richard Wallace, Brian O’Driscoll, Kevin Maggs, Denis Hickie; Ronan O’Gara, Eoin Reddan; Marcus Horan, Keith Wood (c), John Hayes; Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan; David Corkery, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.

A bit harsh on Miller, a bit kind to Richard Wallace, maybe. The Maggs/D’Arcy debate is too long to go into here, but otherwise the choices seem clear. The Golden Generation dominates. And that’s what we mean by a Golden Generation – they stand out in the parade of history among those that have worn Emerald Green, not only because they had exceptional talent, but because they all arrived at the same time. But the Last Post is blowing for the Golden Generation now and An Spailpín is most mortally afraid that not only have the Golden Generation left it behind them, but misguided selection decisions during their reign, when the autumn internationals and summer tours were cynically used for CV padding rather than future planning, mean that Irish rugby will be in the doldrums for quite some time. The Golden Generation has not delivered, and over-reliance on too small a core of players has cost Ireland the future. Brent Pope told Tom McGurk on the telly the other night that he believed Ireland could win the Championship, that they were ideally placed. If we were to search Brent Pope’s effects, would we find a bookie’s docket for Beef or Salmon to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the optimistic Kimi’s wallet?

John O’Mahony likes to quip that the opportunity of a lifetime only lasts as long as the lifetime of the opportunity. The opportunity is on the life-support machine now and if Nick Mallett’s gamble on the tyro Italian half-backs pays off on Saturday at Jones’ Road, the Golden Generation could be on the scrapheap even sooner than worst fears would indicate.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,