Sunday 24 September 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: The bubble has finally burst

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Eamonn Sweeney

It took quite an effort but, following a first ever Six Nations defeat by Italy, Irish rugby is officially back at square one. The national team's decline has followed an eminently predictable course, the Grand Slam season of 2009 having been followed by a three-win season, a pair of two-win seasons and now our first one-win season since 1999, back when we played in the Five Nations.

That year is often looked at as a kind of Year Zero in Irish rugby, the last time the national team was genuinely terrible. The following year we won three matches in the championship and the year after that four, a feat repeated four times before the final breakthrough in 2009. There was something almost inevitable about that Grand Slam because a decade of enormous success by Irish standards led up to it.

This year's disaster has also been predictable. It's not just 'one of those years', it is the logical end to a run of mainly poor performances in the tournament which remains the best measure of where we stand internationally. A country which once routinely reeled off four-win seasons has now won five out of its last 15 Six Nations games. You know the last time Ireland went three years in a row without winning more than two championship games? 1997-1999. Back when we were universally recognised as being, sorry but there's no other way to put it, rubbish.

A couple of years ago even the most doomy prophet wouldn't have forecast that Ireland would only win one match in a Six Nations season. Hell if you'd suggested it at the start of this year you'd have been roundly derided for your negativity.

There are obvious parallels between the rugby team's precipitous fall from grace and the economy's plunge from the heights of the Tiger era. Back when the economic crisis began you'd hear commentators console the nation with the prediction that, "It's hardly going to be as bad as the '80s". Yet here we are with unemployment, emigration and national morale roughly at 1984 levels.

Similarly there seems to be a refusal among blazers and pundits to accept the fact that the Irish team is back in the '90s. You'd imagine that there's no arguing with the stark fact of three defeats out of five and five wins out of 15. Yet there remains what can only be described as an obdurate refusal to accept the reality of results. Instead the team haven't even left the field when we're being told that what matters is the next game. This is literally true, the second the final whistle blew in Murrayfield, the RTE commentator was telling us Ireland had to move on and focus on the game against France.

The problem there is that it gives the impression that Ireland don't learn anything from defeats because in the minds of the management a defeat is not actually a defeat but a springboard. The national team is like a planet from a science fiction story which only really exists in the future because the present is immediately consigned to the past and forgotten. This would make for an excellent episode of Star Trek but it's no way to run a team.

Yet this refusal to deal with the painful implications of defeat is what lay behind all the bullish declarations which would surface in the middle of the week before our Six Nations matches. After the England match players said that a victory over Scotland was essential. After that one went by the wayside we were told that nothing except a win against France would be good enough. The final weekend of the season was prefaced by declarations that we really, really, really had to beat Italy. The phrase 'going forward' might have been invented for this team.

The steady revising downwards of expectations has been something to behold. Even after the Italian match there seems to be a fastidious reluctance to examine the wreckage of the season for evidence of how the crash has happened. Instead the gaze remains firmly on the future, a state of mind epitomised by Declan Kidney's continued insistence that the team are "almost there".

This 'there' place has assumed an almost mystical quality in Irish rugby. It's like Hy Brasil, an imaginary land glimpsed vaguely through the mists which probably doesn't exist at all. Kidney is presumably hoping to get another year in the job because in 12 months' time he'll be able to mask failure with talk about 'building for the World Cup'.

Looked at objectively, the 2013 Six Nations season has been a major disaster following on the minor disasters of the previous two. Yet there remains an almost surreal willingness to try and take a heliocentric view of matters. The careless frittering away of the lead against France was masked by much sentimentalising about Brian O'Driscoll playing through injury which resembled nothing so much as the kind of paeans to Kate Middleton penned in English papers. And it's a fair bet that had Ireland beaten Italy there'd have been a lot of stuff suggesting that the team had 'answered its critics' and that things weren't so bad after all.

An air of unreality surrounds this team. A preview of the match on Saturday morning which focused on the Irish players was one of the most bizarre things I'd read in a long while. This player had assured himself of a Lions Test place, another had amassed an awesome tackle count, another had made the jump into world class, another had been one of the outstanding players of the championships. If you'd showed this to someone who didn't know this year's results, they'd have presumed the team involved was going for a Grand Slam instead of trying to avoid the wooden spoon after a series of displays which at best aspired to adequacy.

We can be sure that when Lions selection time comes around the cheerleaders for the Irish team will caution the selectors not to base their decisions on anything so vulgar as current form. Instead they should judge Irish players on past reputation and our media's estimation of their worth. There have even been suggestions that the selectors should pay massive heed to the forthcoming Heineken Cup matches. Why should they do that? Haven't they already sat through a full Six Nations? Oh, hang on, I see, there won't be any Welsh players involved in the Heineken Cup.

It's instructive to compare the fortunes of the Irish rugby team with that of their Welsh counterparts. The Irish attitude towards Wales in recent years has been one

of thinly-veiled condescension. Irish rugby doesn't seem to accept Welsh rugby as an equal at all, instead seeing the boys in green as battling it out at the top with France and England while aspiring to 'move up a level' and challenge the giants of the southern hemisphere.

How laughable those notions seem the week after Wales have won their second Six Nations Championship in a row and their fourth in nine years compared to Ireland's one. There was so much talk after the autumn internationals about Wales being in crisis you half expected them to be unable to win a game. Panic, it seemed, was rife in the land of the leek. And perhaps it's that type of reaction which meant Wales once more proved to be much better than Ireland at actually winning something. They know when they're struggling and take urgent action.

In theory, Welsh rugby is always in a dire state but in practice their national team is extremely good at winning games. The opposite is true of Ireland. And that's why we shouldn't be caterwauling at the prospect of the Welsh and English dominating the Lions selection at Irish expense, we should be hoping to get as many players on board as Scotland. Because if I was a Scot, after the season gone by, I'd be extremely annoyed at the presumption that they should be outnumbered by the Irish.

Back when the Tiger started going to the wall, there were those who said that we 'shouldn't talk down the economy,' as if pretending things were better than they really were would turn hope into reality. It didn't work then. And it won't work for Irish rugby.

So while I'd love to say that the best is yet to come from Declan Kidney or that all the smart ballsy guys are betting on Ireland to win next year's Six Nations, there's not really much point.

Right now we're in a rugby recession. And right now is what matters.

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