independent

Friday 18 April 2014

End in sight for Irish rugby's old reliables

Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara arrive back into Dublin airport in 2006

In France, they call them "La génération des O" -- Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell.

In Ireland, few within the Irish squad dared to term the guiding trio of 21st century Irish rugby the "golden generation" -- but everyone else did.

Even Declan Kidney was unable to avoid the catch-all tag ascribed to this unprecedented harvest of rugby class, upon which this talented triptych have, until now, stamped their perennial imprint.

But their reign is not impervious to the march of time. As much as their collective 101 years, 343 international Test caps and 527 provincial appearances reflects an inordinate collection of experience, in the same breath the longevity of their service hints at the curtain calls soon to come.

Although it now seems virtually certain that O'Connell will heave his damaged frame upon the Lansdowne Road sward this Saturday evening, with O'Driscoll already struck down, the tension within the frayed Irish support has been palpable.

For sure, O'Gara's decline in the international pecking order has been confirmed well before this autumn, but his absence from the starting line-up this Saturday, particularly if O'Connell also joins O'Driscoll on the sidelines, would have caused palpitations among an unsettled squad, whose confidence is still being scooped from the floor following the Hamilton humiliation last summer.

Especially since it's recalled that the last time an Irish team lined out against higher tier opposition without at least one member of this terrific threesome was in the last century.

Little wonder that former Ireland manager Paul McNaughton was moved to observe that the arrival of O'Driscoll, O'Connell and O'Gara in almost cosmic coincidence could not but have propelled its national team to such unprecedented and consistent achievement.

"As a nation, we haven't had players as good as O'Connell, O'Driscoll and O'Gara on the same team," he noted.

Historically, from Kyle to Ward, and Gibson to Geoghegan, Ireland could create genius, but rarely did it coalesce or co-exist with colleagues and structures of sufficient quality.

But, as this trio's once shining embers start to dwindle, a warning echo from, ironically, another 'O', the less celebrated, but no less effective Donncha O'Callaghan, is instructive.

When he prepared for last year's World Cup summit with Wales, four years on from the doomed campaign when the golden generation should have been at its psychological and physical peak, his words reeked of regret.

Little did he know that crushing last-eight defeat to Wales in Wellington would expose the wounds to further salty incision. "The big thing for our group of lads is to maybe do something to separate ourselves from Irish teams that have gone before," O'Callaghan said before that fateful quarter-final 13 months ago.

"For the group of players who people talk about in the last few years as being a 'golden generation', what have we done that's separated us from the rest? If you're honest, not a whole lot."

A year on and Ireland are once more scrapping to remain within the top eight of the world rankings. Sustained achievement has eluded this country's most successful coterie of players, who, aside from that exhaustively compiled series in 2009, have become more familiar as the underdogs who can bite the best on their day.

Harsh critics might suggest that 'twas ever thus for Irish rugby teams; the provincial successes notwithstanding, the golden generation have remained unfulfilled in green and several boxes remain unticked for these players.

A win -- anywhere -- against New Zealand. A win in South Africa; although it might help if the two Unions developed the sort of relationship that might lead to a rare invite there. A last-four place in the World Cup.

And now? When the stage is bare and the veterans walk away into the sunset? Transition is a dirty word in professional sport, but the issue will be forced upon Ireland, as Andrew Trimble readily concedes.

"When Brian is not fit, it's a massive blow to the side," he admits. "We have to make do. Brian is going to have to be replaced. He'll never be replaced unless someone is given an opportunity. Now is the chance for someone else to step up."

Ireland's sluggishness to change is often illusory; statistically, neither Kidney or his predecessor Eddie O'Sullivan are as archly conservative as it may have seemed to a frustrated public.

uncertain

Often, the best players were better than the rest even when out of form. With O'Driscoll absent for some time, O'Connell's fitness always uncertain and O'Gara no longer a guaranteed starter for his province or country, the rest need to step up.

"You can be worried about it, whether the guys coming in could be a liability, that guys aren't tried and trusted in certain positions," adds Trimble.

"But we should look at it as giving guys an opportunity.

"There's nothing we can do about players who are missing. We have to get on with it."

O'Connell's prophetic words following the Grand Slam triumph -- "tough times are coming" -- reverberate with an eerie echo when viewed through the prisms of Ireland's struggles in recent times.

Whether times will get even tougher depends on how effectively the slowly yielding powers of the golden generation can be supplanted by their less gilded successors.

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