Thursday 29 September 2016

Neil Francis: Move over rugby, football is the only show in town now

O'Neill's men recapture public's attention to leave rugby playing catch-up once more

Published 26/11/2015 | 02:30

Rob Kearney dejected against Argentina and (right) Ireland celebrate against Bosnia
Rob Kearney dejected against Argentina and (right) Ireland celebrate against Bosnia

An innocent statement? An unconscious sentiment in what seemed like a straightforward review. I don't know Martin O'Neill but I have the utmost respect for him as a player, as a manager and as a human being.

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In an article published in this newspaper on November 19 he made a comment that most people would have taken for granted. Me? I had to think about it for a good while.

"I know these sporting events can sometimes get a bit over-played," said O'Neill, "with the disappointment of the rugby side - where there was great opportunity . . . I'm not saying to win the tournament against New Zealand, as that was always going to be difficult, but perhaps the semi-final.

"It felt like taking the baton on and if we hadn't made it, it might have been a lot of drudgery around Christmas time. I'm really, really delighted for the crowd who will come to France."

Martin O'Neill, right, praised the impact of his coaching staff after qualifying for Euro 2016
Martin O'Neill, right, praised the impact of his coaching staff after qualifying for Euro 2016

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The headline in the Indo that day was, 'Rugby woe made Euro joy vital' and soccer correspondent Daniel McDonnell started his piece thus: "Martin O'Neill hopes that qualification for next summer's championships has lifted the mood of the nation after the rugby side's failure to make progress in the World Cup."

By underlining that point, did O'Neill knowingly or unknowingly give his rugby confrères a hefty kick in d'bollix?

I'm sure O'Neill (pictured below) would have been watching the World Cup over the last few months like everyone else - even Jose Mourinho, after another one of his calamitous losses last month, said he would go home to his family, have some dinner, watch the rugby and sleep on the result and tackle it the following morning.

Chris Henry is tackled by Martin Landajo of Argentina whose World Cup victory over Ireland was part of a huge swing in the nation’s sporting mood
Chris Henry is tackled by Martin Landajo of Argentina whose World Cup victory over Ireland was part of a huge swing in the nation’s sporting mood

O'Neill's thoughts and the way they were expressed gave rise to something greater than the mood of the nation. If ever there was a need to capitalise on the swing in a sporting code's fortune, this was it.

The Republic of Ireland were in a highly unpropitious situation in a very competitive group.

You can call it providence or good fortune and there was a little bit of interplanetary alignment required, but Ireland's soccer team made and rode their own luck and by doing so eclipsed the exploits of the highly successful rugby team. They would no longer live in their all-pervading shadow.

When the Republic of Ireland got to the 2012 European finals under Giovanni Trapattoni in 2012, we thought we would be looking at an Olé-travaganza. Unfortunately, it was like the old story of when you get to the poker table and you sit down but you can't find the sucker: get up, it's you!

Spain, Italy and Croatia were certain of the outcome against Ireland in the group stages. Ireland's shelf-life for that tournament was the equivalent of that of an unrefrigerated bottle of milk.

It was a chastening experience - home in our camper vans before a decent Olé Olé. The qualifying for the Fifa World Cup in 2014 would be a sobering experience too.

Leinster players, from left, Fergus McFadden, Rhys Ruddock, Jack McGrath and Dominic Ryan can’t hide their disappointment after losing to Bath at the weekend
Leinster players, from left, Fergus McFadden, Rhys Ruddock, Jack McGrath and Dominic Ryan can’t hide their disappointment after losing to Bath at the weekend

The portals to sporting success weren't closed, however, to followers of the oval ball and as Leinster cut a swathe through Europe, setting up an unheard of dynasty and backed by a new breed of rugby supporters - disillusioned soccer fans - this was followed in quick succession by two Six Nations titles.

Cock of the walk, kings of the world. Rugby had become even sexier. The new professional game had appeal. It was fast, exciting and action-packed. It was played by handsome, articulate, well-mannered athletes who were winning big competitions.

Everyone wanted them: TV, the corporates, the big advertisers, switch voters looking for success - international success. Rugby had exploded since Ireland had won the Grand Slam in 2009.

More importantly, the battle for the hearts, minds and bodies of Ireland's young boys and girls was being won decisively by rugby. The GAA and football were putting up a valiant rearguard but the growth sport in Ireland was undoubtedly rugby.

The lead-up to the recent World Cup was torrent of unending speculation and expectation. I was confident that Ireland would make audacious moves to the top table in rugby.

Meanwhile, our round-ball brethren had shot their bolt. A 1-0 loss to Scotland at Celtic Park 12 months ago and an unpalatable draw at the Aviva this June meant that they could pretty much fold up their tents; as people went on their summer holidays there was only one competition and only one team that the nation would be focusing on in the next few months.

But Ireland's soccer team steadfastly kept winning and just three days before the rugby team's decisive 24-9 victory over France, they produced one of the biggest victories in the FAI's history with that 1-0 victory over Germany at the Aviva.

How many people went to watch both games live, I wonder? The atmosphere at both was truly amazing. The television figures said it all, though: an average of 700,000 viewers watched the soccer match on RTE 1; an average of 1.2 million watched the rugby match on TV3.

When Ireland went forward to confront their destiny against Argentina, we would not know the unbearable sense of deja vu when they failed again at the most important time of asking.

The nation exhaled, no longer able to keep their trust in their rugby heroes. No semi-final - it was the longest week for a lot of Irish people after that miserable day in Cardiff.

And so a void had to be filled and a biblical reversal of fortune came about. The football team got a winnable draw in the play-offs and they calmly and professionally dispatched Bosnia, and the period between now and July unquestionably belongs to the football team.

The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Bulgaria, Greece, Scotland and Finland won't be there for the Euros. The likelihood is that Ireland won't get out of their group, but they are difficult opponents and unlike 2012 will show more ambition. The point is that they have the whip hand back for the attention of the nation.

It is also significant that the UEFA draw takes place on December 12 - the weekend that Ulster will probably follow Leinster out of the Heineken Cup.

Another point to reflect on is that the lamentable Philippe Saint-André and the improbable Stuart Lancaster are gone and their replacements Guy Noves and Eddie Jones - it is fair to say - know what they are doing, and the likelihood of Ireland victories in London and Paris this season are remote.

Nor will home victories over these two underperforming and badly-coached teams come as easy as they did. And on the evidence of the World Cup displays, we are likely to struggle against Wales and Scotland at home this year.

I would suggest that our rugby players stay off social media, keep their engagements around town to a minimum, stay humble and knuckle down to what will be a very trying international season.

Whether Martin O'Neill was attempting to underscore where the focus of the national mood is at now is disputable. I don't think that he was looking for political capital.

The point is that football is in the van now and a response from rugby looks unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Irish Independent

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