Back in the doldrums again
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Why is the Irish rugby team so persistently disappointing these days? As the dreams of a Grand Slam, a Six Nations title or even a Triple Crown sputtered out last Sunday after 80 of the most boring minutes ever witnessed at an Irish sporting venue, I realised how silly it was of me to have expected anything different.
Because, since the glorious Grand Slam season of 2009, things have been going steadily downhill for a team whose defining characteristic is the failure to put two good performances back to back. And the England game, an error-ridden shambles which proved that there's nothing worse than a bad rugby match, spelled out the stark truth that the greatest era in Irish rugby history is definitively over. We might never see the like of it again.
What an era it was. It began when a young Irish team hammered Scotland 44-22 in Lansdowne Road on February 19, 2000 and a month later scored our first win in France for 28 years thanks to a hat-trick of tries by a young centre named Brian O'Driscoll. And, despite setbacks along the way, Ireland never really looked back for the rest of the decade which culminated with the 17-15 victory over Wales in Cardiff on March 21, 2009 that won us the whole shebang.
That Grand Slam in Declan Kidney's first season as manager was no bolt from the blue. In 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007 we won four out of five games. The Triple Crown in 2004, only our third in 50 years, was followed by two more in 2006 and 2007. They came to seem routine. By the time Ireland finally nailed that Grand Slam, they were being told that anything less constituted failure.
What we'd give for those days now. Between 2007 and 2009 we won 11 out of 15 Six Nations ties, and that included a 2008 season regarded as so disastrous it led to the sacking of Eddie O'Sullivan. In the three years before that, the figure had also been 11. And it was the same between 2002 and 2004. Ireland were remarkably consistent and excellent.
Now? From 2010 to 2012 we won eight out of 15 matches. The last three-year run worse than that was the 1998-2000 period during which we won five out of 15 and which preceded the revival begun by Warren Gatland and carried on by Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney. The figures don't lie. The Irish rugby team hasn't been this weak in over a decade.
We probably should have celebrated a bit more in 2009 and realised this was the pinnacle of achievement for a golden generation. O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, O'Gara, O'Connell, Hayes, Wallace, O'Callaghan, Stringer et al were the kind of players we don't produce too often. Instead the talk was of 'moving to the next level,' and kicking on from that historic victory.
Realistically, that was never going to happen because it was an ageing team but the extent of the decline has been surprising. One undistinguished Six Nations campaign has followed another. We haven't beaten the French since 2009, a Welsh team which was supposed to be in crisis beat us three times on the trot, we managed to fit in a first loss to Scotland in almost a decade and this day last week suffered our first home loss to England since 2003. Ireland are on the crest of a slump.
The situation against other international opposition has been even worse. In the past three years Ireland have been beaten five times out of five by the All Blacks. Last year's 60-0 defeat was our worst ever but the 66-28 and 42-10 defeats weren't much fun either. South Africa have twice beaten us at home, something they failed to do on three previous occasions in 2004, 2006 and 2009. And the only ray of light, that memorable World Cup group match victory against Australia, was quickly snuffed out by a humiliating 22-10 quarter-final defeat against Wales. Wales lost their semi-final by a point to France who went on to lose the final by a point to the All Blacks. That's how close those countries were to the southern hemisphere giants. Ireland, on the other hand, are miles away.
I don't mean to be unduly hard on the current team. But what surprises me is the general complacency which has accompanied Ireland's slide back towards, if not into, the doldrums. Every defeat seems to be followed by suggestions that all the team needs to do is learn from this and move on to the next challenge. The underwhelming showings in the 2010 and 2011 Six Nations, for example, were excused by suggestions that the important thing was to build for the World Cup. And when the World Cup went awry, that too was treated as a momentary blip.
Positive thinking is all very well but a lot of Irish rugby officials, coaches and pundits seem to have an enviable knack of writing off the most inexcusable performances to experience. Even that 60-point whaling by an All Blacks team who might have made it a ton had they not seemed to lose interest midway through the second half was quickly brushed under the carpet. It was close to the worst performance in history by a team representing this country but the attitude seemed to be, 'Nothing to see here, move along folks'.
Contrast this with the way that every defeat for the Ireland soccer side is regarded as a national disgrace which brings shame upon John Delaney, Giovanni Trapattoni, Robbie Keane and even the fans who let the country down by cheering too much. What's galling about this is that the supposed success of the rugby team is frequently used as a stick to beat the soccer team with. Why can't you be successful like the rugby lads, they're asked.
This was fair enough when the rugby team were an international force to be reckoned with. But that day has passed. Right now Ireland are struggling in the Six Nations and are an utter irrelevance in the game worldwide. Which pretty much puts them on a par with the soccer team. Had something like the record humiliation in New Zealand happened on the FAI's watch, people would probably be calling for a government enquiry followed by capital punishment. But the IRFU sails blithely on.
You know who looks pretty good from this vantage point? Eddie O'Sullivan.
The euphoria following the 2009 Grand Slam victory led to a lot of revisionism about O'Sullivan but the fact remains that it was on his watch that we became a truly top-class team, rising as high as number three in the world rankings. That, a couple of months back, his home province of Connacht wouldn't even give him an interview for the job of manager speaks volumes about the current complacent mindset at the top of Irish rugby.
The parlous state of affairs has been camouflaged to some extent by the heroics of Leinster in the Heineken Cup but the fact remains that international games are the true test of a rugby nation. Right now, Ireland are failing that test. Yet there seems to be a reluctance to face up to that fact, as if pretending that Ireland still has a world-class team can magically make it so.
You know things must be desperate when people last week fell back on the last resort of the scoundrel: blaming the fans. I had a lot of respect for Alan Quinlan as a player but his wittering on about the supporters being somehow culpable for Sunday's awful display because they didn't cheer loudly enough was an awful load of tripe. What's the poor old Irish fan to do? If he sings at the top of his voice for a losing soccer team, he's condoning mediocrity. And if doesn't sing at the top of his voice for a losing rugby team, he's in the wrong too. Tickets are expensive enough these times without people with free passes lecturing the fans about the correct way to support the team.
There'd have been no shortage of noise in the Aviva Stadium this day last week if the players had given the fans something to cheer about. But they didn't. That's how it's going to be from now on.
The BOD days are over. The ROG days are over. The dog days are here.