Barren year the perfect world cup reality check
Published 01/06/2010 | 05:00
From trophy-laden heroes to empty-cabinet zeros. Having swept the boards in a 2009 winning feast, taking the Grand Slam, Six Nations, Triple Crown, Heineken Cup, Magners League and Churchill Cup, 2010 has made for the inevitable hangover -- the famine after the feast.
Realistically, could it ever have been any other way? Inevitably, when you win everything the only way is down. It took little by way of rocket science to predict that last year's sweep would be a difficult act to follow.
For such a relatively small but sports-daft nation, we set ourselves some sky high standards. That, as Keith Wood, Roy Keane, Brian O'Driscoll and others of that ilk will tell you, is no bad thing. We do need to set our standards high, but they must be grounded in reality.
So while 2010 will hardly follow 2009 into the annals of Irish rugby legend, there was still a lot to take from a season that promised for so long without delivering, at least in terms of silverware, anything like the same degree.
The best team in the Six Nations won out -- beating us convincingly in Paris -- but while we could and should have taken the Triple Crown, there were no grumbles whatsoever from Declan Kidney given Ireland's flat display against Scotland in the final game of the campaign.
The Scots won because they wanted it so badly. Having played so well in beating England at Twickenham, our psyche was all wrong for the Croke Park finale.
I have said it before, and repeat again now, that the day we take a Triple Crown for granted is the day we lose our way entirely. On Saturday, March 20, against Scotland, we went close to doing just that. Had we prevailed, it would have made for five Triple Crowns in seven years and pushed us one ahead of the Scots in the all-time winners list.
Triple Crowns are special and achievements in this, as in any other era, are well worth celebrating.
At provincial level, Ulster aside, we again came close. In Europe, Munster, Leinster and Connacht made it through to the semi-finals but, as with the national side, came up short against more talented Gallic opposition.
The scrum was unquestionably our Achilles heel and, for Kidney, Gert Smal and company, the area most in need of attention during the upcoming tour Down Under. There is no quick fix but as Australia have shown, where there is a will, there is a way. Cian Healy may have a bit to go in technical terms but the basic ingredients are there.
The real problem continues on the other side where, despite John Hayes being on board, I would start with Tony Buckley and wrap Hayes in cotton wool, using him sparingly off the bench, if at all.
Rest assured, it won't happen. Take Healy or Marcus Horan to start at No 1 with Hayes at No 3 and Jerry Flannery at No 2 in between. Horan and Flannery have had injury and (in the case of Flannery) suspension-interrupted seasons, while Hayes has been pushed to the limit for both province and country.
Despite beating Munster three times in the Magners League, it was a hugely disappointing climax to the domestic season for Leinster and for Jamie Heaslip, Healy, Jonny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Shane Jennings, Eoin Reddan and Rob Kearney in particular. For all eight national squad players it was a double whammy coming within touching distance of Triple Crown and Magners League success.
Disappointing though defeat in both of those big matches was, it speaks volumes for the current status of Irish rugby when the thin line between success and failure is now measured by such high standards.
What would the Scots give to make a Magners League final, never mind the final four in the Heineken Cup?
Irish rugby is still in pretty good condition. We will miss Luke Fitzgerald, Stephen Ferris, Leo Cullen, Paul O'Connell, Rory Best, Denis Leamy and Kevin McLaughlin on the upcoming tour but, with the World Cup now only 15 months away, the enforced break could hardly be better timed.
On the plus side too, Heaslip and Tommy Bowe have both come of age as linchpins and very real leaders in the side.
Keith Earls, despite injury, is maturing at the highest level from starlet to star. To that add genuine competition at full-back between an on-fire Kearney and the revitalised Geordan Murphy. The decision to make him captain at Welford Road was an inspired move by Richard Cockerill. He is now very much the thinking man's full-back but still with that potential to produce the outrageous. Here, for sure, Kidney has genuine options.
So too at out-half, where the battle between Sexton and Ronan O'Gara is guaranteed to dominate the headlines.
The big call will come, not on Friday (against the Barbarians) but on Saturday week in New Plymouth against the All Blacks.
Sexton has made an encouraging recovery from his jaw break but O'Gara's consistency over the latter part of the season could well see the play-making call for the final Six Nations match (against the Scots) reversed.
It might sound a warped sort of logic but, given the timing of the World Cup, this year's empty feeling could yet prove a blessing in providing the springboard for a final assault by the golden generation in 2011. The Six Nations schedule for next year with England and France in Dublin could hardly be better planned.
Before that, of course, there is the little matter of the All Blacks, Maori and Wallabies Down Under to be followed by the Springboks, Samoa, All Blacks (again) and Argentina all in the Aviva in the autumn. It's a rigorously demanding schedule, making player welfare in the early season arguably more important than ever (remember France '07).
The danger time is now and tempting though it will be for Kidney to field as close to full strength in every match, the bigger picture must prevail. I don't buy into the spin that a win on southern hemisphere soil is essential ahead of New Zealand 2011. Of course it would provide a timely boost but give me a fit and healthy squad returning in late June instead. Beyond that, 'Que sera, sera'.