Monday, October 10, 2011

Post Saeculum Aureum: Where to Now for Irish Rugby?

Ireland’s World Cup was a failure. Anything you read elsewhere, about great memories and wins over Australia and the rest, is all blather.

Look at the picture of Brian O’Driscoll at the post-match press conference. He knows better than anyone just what the loss to Wales means. And it’s better for the nation to digest an unpalatable truth and move on than to remain in permanent denial.

This is the end of the golden generation. They shone their brightest in the twilight of their days, fighting on and on against time’s fell and inevitable hand. The golden generation were already over the hill when they won the Grand Slam two years ago. For them to still appear at the World Cup and to threaten so much is astonishing.

Even the term golden generation is misleading. It’s been O’Driscoll and the supporting cast. He had able subalterns in O’Connell and O’Gara but Ireland without O’Driscoll over the years of his reign were like low-fat milk or decaf coffee. More or less pointless. No emerald comet ever shone so brightly and for so long as O'Driscoll. He gave everything he had, and nobody can give more than that.

The depressing thing about the O’Driscoll era in Irish rugby is that the team didn’t win more. One Championship, a blessed Grand Slam, is not enough return. Celebrating Triple Crowns while Wales, England and France all won multiple Grand Slams was pathetic and betrayed a hopeless lack of ambition.

The wins over understrength and overconfident Australia and exhausted Italy in this World Cup were illusory. They simply papered over cracks. And when aging Ireland met young and hungry Wales there was no contest. Ireland were blown away by a much better team.

Seven countries have had podium finishes in the World Cups so far – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, France, Argentina and Wales. Even Scotland managed to win a quarter-final, once. Ireland never have, and struggle to get out of the group half the time.

This time Ireland topped the group, and still couldn’t progress. The Irish rugby community tends to stiffen with pride at the thought of the successes of Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup, and expects that to transfer internationally. Maybe having only two first-rate club sides in our domestic rugby is actually a sign of lean times ahead.

And leaner they’ll get, not least when it makes more financial sense for the provinces to bring in specialist tight head props, openside flankers and stand-off halves from overseas than to suffer the mistakes of up and coming Irish players who must learn their trade.

In theory those young Irish players can learn their trade in Connacht, the “development” province. As such, you’d think all Connacht players should be Irish and under-25, with some leeway for local men to build a support base. Here’s the Connacht rugby squad – how do you think that one’s working out?

Rugby has had ten years in Ireland like it has never enjoyed before. The question facing the IRFU now is do they push on and grow the sport in the country, or settle back to the comfort of the alickadoo community?

The horrified and short-sighted response to former Minister Eamon Ryan’s proposal that Heineken Cup rugby should be free to air suggests that the IRFU are unaware of the need to keep promoting the game. Travelling hordes supporting Munster was always very well when it was novel and money was flush, but that’s not going to happen for a few years. There are dark times ahead, and the IRFU ought to prepare properly for them.

One way to start would be by giving the smug self-satisfaction a rest and publicly bemoaning that the golden generation didn’t win as much as they should have, and if Ireland's greatest ever player wasn't let down by his home union.

What would be very revelatory and cathartic would be if the IRFU came out and said that Ireland could have had Warren Gatland as head coach for the entirety of Brian O’Driscoll’s career, and we shot ourselves in the foot big time there. An Spailpín Fánach shan’t be holding his breath.