Favourite tag weighs heavy on Irish Grand Slam dreams
Published 28/02/2009 | 00:00
Someone as elemental as Martin Johnson will see today in blunt, primordial form.
Beyond the formal courtesies and banalities, beyond the decorative business he so thunderously repelled before that Grand Slam showdown of '03, this is about identity. England come as underdogs to a city already casting amorous glances further afield. The discerning won't doubt the nature of what that sends whistling through the ribcage of a man like Johnson.
Ireland expects. Our story is a broken record of mishap and folly, yet a couple of games into this Six Nations we are giddy with the thought of Cardiff and St Patrick's week. Two years ago, we ran England out of town on tumbrels. Now, we eye them up as dull, white paving stones.
If Johnson invokes history in the Croke Park changing room today, who could blame him?
Ireland's relationship with pressure is that of Michael Jackson's with thrift. We are incompatible. The record books declare us a nation for whom, traditionally, the tag of favouritism is a curse on our houses. Tense muscles lead to clumsy hands and uncertain feet. We go to battle nursing little frissons of dread.
For a man who has won Grand Slams and a World Cup, Dublin today cannot but look a town of opportunity.
Johnson, no doubt, will identify our championship talk as impudent. It is, after all, 23 years since we last won the damn thing. We have yet to top the Six Nations, and the one and only time we won a Grand Slam, Fred Daly was still British Open champion.
Even through Eddie O'Sullivan's reign of plenty, three Triple Crowns in four seasons did not decant a single championship title. Ireland finished second four times under O'Sullivan and, to his critics, that became an affront to our national dignity.
So hubris kicks in rather quickly in Irish rugby. In the match programme for the historic first game at Croke Park two years ago against France, there was a full-page ad inviting orders for corporate tickets to Ireland's likely World Cup quarter-final that September. Speculating to accumulate, you might say.
The boys in Anglo-Irish would have loved it.
Maybe it's just in our DNA to see summer in every sun-splash. But here's the thing about the modern game. Winning trophies is harder now than it's ever been. Moss Keane's career in an Irish jersey lasted 10 seasons. In that time (1974-84), he was on three championship-winning teams. Yet, through the course of that decade, Keane won fewer than four of every 10 games played in green.
Brendan Mullin, a Triple Crown-winner in '85, won fewer than three in every 10 during his time as an international.
Compare this to Brian O'Driscoll's ratio of close to an 80pc success rate. Even legends of the game like Jack Kyle and Mike Gibson didn't come close to that. Gibson's win ratio was 44.64pc. Girvan Dempsey's currently stands at 63.15pc.
Ireland's consistency in the last eight years, then, has been extraordinary. Keane believes that it speaks of a different mindset.
"In my day, we were definitely spurred on by being underdogs" he says. "But those were amateur days. Christ, I would hope that's gone out of the system now.
"I'd say none of that stuff matters anymore. And yet, the annoying thing is that very average Welsh teams have won two Grand Slams in the last four years and our 'golden generation' didn't win one. That's hard to stomach."
The one actual Grand Slam shoot-out Ireland had in recent times was that '03 meeting with Johnson's England at Lansdowne Road, in which the preliminaries identified the visitors' pugnacious mood. Ireland lost 6-42 that day, the scoreline a bit of a travesty for a game that still bubbled vigorously beyond the hour mark.
Famously, Brian Price's fist landing on Noel Murphy's jaw put paid to an Irish Grand Slam bid in Cardiff in 1969; the following season Ireland giving the Slam-chasing Welsh a taste of their own medicine with a 14-0 victory at Lansdowne.
In '72, Ireland recorded victories in Paris (our first in 20 years) and London (Kevin Flynn's injury-time try) only for the Scottish and Welsh teams to refuse to travel to Dublin on the grounds of personal safety. The victory at Stade Colombes had been achieved the day before the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry.
There was a five-way share of the championship in '73, Ireland won it outright in '74 and -- thereafter -- went without until the Triple Crown win of '82.
Between '80 and '81, we suffered seven championship defeats in succession, though Triple Crown captain Ciaran Fitzgerald maintained that the team could have won the championship in either of those seasons. By '82, the senior players were, he said, "fed up to the gills being told they were w*****s by everybody in the country". They beat the three 'Home' countries that season, but went down 9-22 in Paris.
In '85, Mick Doyle's 'give-it-a-lash' policy did the trick again, but the French -- as ever -- refused to facilitate a Grand march, drawing 15-15 in Dublin. And, remarkably, Ireland have not been champions since.
By the time Fitzgerald was appointed Ireland coach in the summer of 1990, he had a clear view of what the team needed to achieve.
"I believe firmly that Ireland can be as athletic as the All Blacks," he said at the time. "Our forwards can run fast, handle and pass quickly, the same thing Gaelic footballers can do, and better.
"If you look at the English forwards, some of the bigger ones, they're programmed to jump and shove. That's it. The prop forwards are normally programmed for a simple function. There is much more natural athleticism in Irish people."
How we now forget the plain eccentricity of Irish form at the time.
For all our routine grief in Five Nations rugby, Ireland won a Test series in Australia in '79. And, despite the fact that Fitzgerald's two-year tenure as Irish coach did not produce a single championship victory, his team ran eventual champions Australia to the very edge in the '91 World Cup.
Bob Dwyer, coach of that Wallabies team, maintained afterwards that Irish teams were habitually under-prepared. "Ireland's problem, as I view it, is a lack of fitness," said Dwyer. "They have enough spirit and flair to be able occasionally to pull a great performance out of the hat, but no team can have continuity of good performance if the players are not strong and fit."
And he told the story of the Wallabies' Grand Slam captain of '84, Andrew Slack, returning to Australia after a season spent playing on this side of the globe with Wanderers.
"How was it?" Dwyer asked Slack.
"The rugby was fantastic?"
"No, the rugby was awful!"
Slack had discovered that outside centre was a lonely place to play in an Irish winter. But, socially, our rugby left him utterly charmed.
This, essentially, was the culture that defined Ireland in the amateur days. Passionate. Indisciplined. Courageous. Unreliable. Defiant. Mediocre. We went through the '92 championship without giving the extraordinary Simon Geoghegan a single pass, let alone actually winning a game. The following year, Geoghegan offered his opinions in a candid newspaper interview and was promptly suspended from the Irish squad.
The 90s were awful. A succession of coaches -- Fitzgerald, Murray Kidd, Gerry Murphy, Brian Ashton -- came and went like appendages to some great national wake. Even Warren Gatland pulled just a solitary victory from his first seven championship games at the Ireland helm, his stats improving only when O'Sullivan signed up as his assistant.
O'Sullivan himself believes there was a tipping point for this Irish team in terms of confidence. He maintains it came in the '04 Triple Crown game against Scotland at Lansdowne Road. Having led comfortably, Ireland found themselves tied at 16-16 after an Allister Hogg try early in the second half.
Traditionally, that would have been the signal for implosion, but the team kicked on to win 37-16. In O'Sullivan's time, only the French proved a virtually unbreakable puzzle. Three times, they alone stood between his Ireland and a Grand Slam.
Perhaps that is feeding the confidence now, the fact that France have been beaten.
Ireland are being quoted at an extraordinarily cramped 1/3 to win today. To win our first championship in almost quarter of a century, the odds are just 13/8. To bridge 61 years and win only our second Grand Slam, a scarcely generous 3/1.
The tendrils of expectation hanging across this team are heavy.
How they cope with that and -- as such -- how they distance themselves from history, will now define Declan Kidney's team.
Armagh footballer Enda McNulty -- making a name for himself these days in the business of 'performance excellence' -- believes the mantle of favouritism will only affect Ireland if the team allows it.
"Listen, the term 'favourite' comes from the bookies," says McNulty. "What real understanding do bookies have of sport? They look at trends. They base their odds on stats and current form. Do they really know what's going on this week in the mindset of the Irish players? No. Or the English players? No. Do they know what Declan Kidney has brought to the table this week? No.
"'Favourites v underdogs' is just a hackneyed term. The best sports people in the world, people like Tiger Woods or Padraig Harrington, place as much focus on mental strength as they do on physical capacity. You shut that stuff out. That way, it means nothing."
Ireland expects then, yet we can rest assured that Johnson's England will be intent on giving Croke Park a distinctly claustrophobic feel. It could be a long, fraught evening in the old town.
- More than 7,000 Irish supporters will have their names printed into the numbers of the Irish squad jerseys in Croke Park today as part of O2's on-going 'Be The Difference' campaign.