Sport Rugby

Friday 22 September 2017

A chance lost against All Blacks but nobody can say they didn't earn it

Johnny Sexton
Johnny Sexton

Tommy Conlon

Moral victories come with an odour, a scent somewhere of the second rate, and Irish sport is well versed in their textures and taste.

The stories of valiant defeats are legion. It is a litany of near misses and close-run things and cruel twists of fate.

In recent years, however, perhaps the last two decades, a shift in the public consensus has occurred. The heroic failure is no longer acceptable. It is a relic of amateur thinking and amateur times. It is an excuse, a denial, a self-indulgence. The only reality that matters is the result.

A new Puritanism is abroad. We're either serious about winning or we're not. If you lose, you weren't good enough – and that's not good enough. The moral victory has become a stigma.

More or less everyone subscribes to this attitude, competitors, fans and media alike. But it is reiterated so often these days that it has become almost a platitude, a line we keep repeating, as if to reassure ourselves that we've moved on, that no trace of the old sentimental mediocrity remains. Modern society is all about winners, and we must think like winners too.

In terms of competition and sport, it may lack a bit of perspective and indeed humour, but it is an essential principle that has to be applied to everything from government policy to facilities, preparation and performance. Still, in our anxiety to get with the programme, there is the danger of looking at every hard-luck story for signs of the old defeatist mentality.

There is a tendency to dismiss every defeat as a failure when, at least in some cases, the competitors involved did everything possible to win.

Last Sunday the Irish players did just about everything that was humanly possible in the circumstances.

It is seldom in the life of any team that it will reach the outer limit, the very edge of its ability – all together, all at the one time. It is a sort of Utopian ideal for any team, and it is rarely achieved.

In rugby, 15 to 20 players have to produce performances close to their individual peak, and blend them into one organic mass. The individual, playing at his personal maximum, has to dissolve into the collective so that it becomes one fluid entity, working together in absolute and unconscious unity.

For long periods last Sunday the Ireland team was operating in that rarefied zone. It was as close, probably, as they could come to completion.

Just about every player scraped the ceiling; several of them put their fist through the ceiling and reached a height that some of them might never reach again. It was a PB, a personal best, if there's such a thing for a team.

Afterwards, and in keeping with the second-is-nowhere sensibility, a few players were unforgiving of themselves. Seán O'Brien allowed that they could be proud of the performance, "but it still wasn't good enough". Rob Kearney felt they'd gone into their shell in the second half rather than looking for more scores.

But there was another party to the proceedings, which happened to be the best team in the world, the invincibles of 2013. Having been shocked and shellacked in the first half, New Zealand were always going to produce a dominant period of play. The surge came in the third quarter. But Ireland held out; they weathered it; they conceded just three points. A series of critical interventions from O'Brien, Bowe, Toner, Murray and Heaslip helped to keep them at bay.

In the final quarter a perennial problem emerged. It is not specific to this country's team. Northern hemisphere sides simply do not operate at the same ferocious tempo as their southern counterparts, New Zealand in particular.

They are not conditioned to cope with the remorseless speed. Then there is the battering force of their power too. The All Blacks still looked to be cruising in the last 20 while Irish players were visibly wilting.

But all through, the home side had played with their heads as well as their souls. They'd summoned up all the traditional fury, but there was ice as well as fire. They were thinking; they were making good decisions; their discipline and concentration were rigorous.

With all of this, and all of that courage and heart, they took it down the stretch, they hit the home straight in front.

And then, lo and behold, they were marching the All Blacks back to their own line, grinding them down in a beast of a maul. They were dictating terms again. There was nothing defeatist about this; they were not passively accepting the inevitable. This was a cold and strategic play for the points that would seal the deal.

The penalty duly came; the points didn't. They should have. Quite simply, Jonathan Sexton should have nailed it, and ended it there and then.

He seems to be the type of character who will nurse this wound for a long time. One hopes he'll able to process it, let it go and move on. But they will all carry the scars of this one. It was the chance of a lifetime, never to return for some of them.

thecouch@independent.ie

Sunday Independent

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