Painful reality check after misplaced optimism
Going into the Six Nations our optimism was once again successful in its annual search for justification – having France and England at home, the team's autumn performance against Argentina, the apparent decline in the form of the champions Wales, and the absence of an outstanding opponent.
We contrived to play down the significance of last year's form – three wins (Italy, Scotland and Argentina, all at home) from 10 games played – and of our extensive injury list; and at half-time against Wales, all was well with the world.
Regrettably, it's been all downhill since then. Disappointment at our failure to salvage anything substantial from the season compounded by the absence of anything remotely approaching brilliance among any of our competitors.
The dominant theme of this campaign must be the number of players who were unavailable on at least one occasion is in double figures, and most of them were out of Declan Kidney's reach for more than one game also. Admirably, however, the coach has declined to use the extent of his casualty list as an excuse for his side's non-performance; no-one would blame him however if he did – our relative lack of playing resources is such that the combined loss of Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe is simply unsustainable.
That said, the short-term absentees were more noteworthy for the disruption their absence brought to the side's preparation; and while obvious benefits accrued in the context of squad development, the stark realities remain – too many players were unavailable to represent their country in what is, or what should be anyway, the raison d'etre for the team, the Six Nations.
The coach used a total of 33 players, starting 21 and selecting 15 (three of whom also started at least once) as subs; ten played in all five games, nine starting all five. Just two, skipper Jamie Heaslip and fullback Rob Kearney, played every minute.
Interestingly, of the 40 substitutions available (eight per game), 33 were availed of; one player, hooker Seán Cronin, twice sat on the bench unloved. Interestingly too, three of the other five unused opportunities concerned front-row colleagues David Kilcoyne, Declan Fitzpatrick and Stephen Archer, and this at a time when top-level teams make a point of freshening entire front-rows after 55-60 minutes.
The coach needed a successful campaign to have any chance of an extension. His decision to replace Brian O'Driscoll as captain appeared at the time to be an unnecessary gamble and the manner of its handling left a lot to be desired, and a lingering cloud still remains.
The place-kicking issue in Murrayfield was another unnecessary risk which backfired, as was the uncharacteristically premature withdrawal of man-of-the-match Murray from the French game. That said, the selection of Fergus McFadden paid off handsomely and the emergence of Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson and Peter O'Mahony as real contributors to the squad was a major positive.
While the likes of O'Connell, Ferris and Bowe, along with hooker Richardt Strauss, were absent (I doubt if the South African would have been left on the bench), no individual stole the show.
Having said that, there were some notable contributions: Kearney, O'Driscoll, Murray, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan and the back-row trio of O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and Heaslip started all nine games. My own outstanding contributors over the entire tournament however were the flankers, O'Mahony, for consistently stifling the opposition at the breakdown with little regard for his own safety, and O'Brien, of whom the same can be said and who carried to consistent effect too.
It must also be said that every team for whom O'Driscoll plays performs better for having him in their ranks, even when his physical capacity is diminished. After Cardiff, however, he looked at odds with himself, culminating in that uncharacteristic act of indiscipline yesterday.
The season provided a reality check for that misplaced sense of importance in the rugby firmament, and the outlook for the IRFU is gloomy. The coach is an honourable man who has contributed hugely to Irish rugby but whose time, sadly, has passed. I believe he'll do the honourable thing, and soon too. He'll do so in the knowledge that he's doing, and has done, us all some considerable service.