Sport Rugby

Sunday 22 October 2017

We've rediscovered the love

Eamonn Sweeney

I rish rugby seems to have been sucked into some kind of strange science fiction-style time warp. Because while in normal life March 12 is less than three months ago, in rugby it seems to belong to a different age altogether.

March 12 was the day when referee Jonathan Kaplan and touch judge Peter Allan's failure to do their job properly enabled Welsh scrum-half Mike Phillips to score a blatantly illegal match-winning try against Ireland at the Millennium Stadium. Messrs Kaplan and Allan had combined to produce an all-time classic of awful officiating.

The media consensus held that the illegality of the winning score was largely irrelevant. Ireland's loss was seen as incontrovertible evidence that Declan Kidney had lost the plot, that the team was in decline, that we had fallen far behind an England team motoring inexorably towards the Grand Slam, that our own Grand Slam of 2009 was the glorious finale of a golden era which might not come again for some time.

It didn't seem to matter that Ireland would almost certainly have won had Phillips been called back, given that Wales never again threatened our line. And the fact that we'd outscored France by three tries to one in the match at the Aviva Stadium and been exceptionally unlucky to lose was also glossed over. The Irish rugby team, media darlings for so long, were finding out what the national soccer team has known for the past decade, that when the press have decided you're a bad news story, that's the way they'll report you no matter what happens on the pitch.

One well-known rugby pundit used the words 'ineptitude', 'awful', 'simplistic', 'laborious,' 'without wit or wisdom,' 'repetitive,' 'mediocrity' and 'paranoia,' to describe Ireland's performance. Paul O'Connell was described as 'an anachronism in the modern game,' and as for Jamie Heaslip, 'the term world-class number 8 is just a negotiating tool for his agent'. Our meeting with Italy in the World Cup, it was suggested, could be 'a graveyard for Ireland's hopes of glory'.

The man may have gone a bit overboard but he wasn't the only one to suggest Ireland were going nowhere. If you'd suggested on the morning of March 13 that we'd be travelling to the World Cup with high expectations, your friends would have wondered if you'd been at the bottom of one too many rucks.

It really is very hard to imagine that all this happened less than three months ago. Because in the intervening period the public has fallen back in love with the national rugby team to such an extent that once more anything seems possible in the World Cup, the tournament which has so often functioned as the cruellest possible corrective to Irish sporting optimism.

The rehabilitation process began with that victory over England, a performance even more satisfying than the Croke Park rout of four years ago. Leinster followed up with a kind of fantasy Heineken Cup run-in, following up wins over the second and third-best teams in competition history with the greatest comeback ever seen in the final.

And what about the greatest team in Heineken Cup history? Well, last Saturday they proved that rumours of their demise are greatly exaggerated when scoring a Magners League final victory which may be of crucial importance to Irish rugby. Because just as it was vital for Leinster to emulate Munster's heroics, it is now vital for Munster to stay within touching distance of Leinster. And had Leinster been able to come into Thomond Park a week after a gruelling Heineken Cup decider and defeat a home team whose whole season was riding on the Magners game, it would mean Munster really were a spent force. Paul O'Connell et al knew that which is why their performance possessed that frightening intensity which enabled both of our big provinces to exit the season with honour.

These past two and a bit months have caused a few cherished notions about the course of Irish rugby to take a big hit. That narrative of decline needs to be rethought for one. And so does the idea that the 'Golden Generation' of players who have served us so well over the past decade are a kind of one-off miracle whose departure might presage a slump. Because it now appears there is another on the way. Seán O'Brien's awesome performances in the Six Nations, Jonny Sexton's tour de force in the Heineken Cup final and the fact that Stephen Ferris is still only 25, Andrew Trimble 26, and Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe just a year older are the most obvious pointers towards a very bright future. But you also have the progress of Keith Earls, Fergus McFadden, Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Rhys Ruddock and, the latest new kids on the block, Conor Murray and Felix Jones.

The arrival of Murray and Jones as serious contenders also gives the lie to the notion that Munster have a paucity of young talent coming through. One terrific Magners League campaign and all of a sudden they seem to be coming down with young tyros, the likes of Danny Barnes, Mike Sherry and Ian Nagle.

Remember when we seemed to be eternally doomed to struggle in the scrum with no replacement for John Hayes on the horizon? Mike Ross's unexpected metamorphosis into an international prop of substance and Cian Healy's rapid development have made that scenario look infinitely less gloomy. And another bonus from the Six Nations was the renaissance of David Wallace, Donncha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara, three players perceived to be over the hill who rallied to produce their best international performances in recent years.

Cue the creepy music. There haven't been such grounds for optimism going into a World Cup since . . . 2007. And we all remember how that turned into something which felt less like a sports tournament and more like an act of spiritual mortification, your very own Lough Derg in front of the telly.

Yet the warning signs were there four years ago when Leinster and Munster were clobbered in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals by Wasps and Llanelli respectively. Fatigue had begun to set in, the constant near-misses in the Six Nations had worn the team down. This time, however, the stop-start nature of Ireland's championship campaigns over the past couple of years makes you feel the team still has a lot left in the tank.

The stark statistic which shows no win over southern hemisphere opposition on their turf since 1979 should stop us from getting carried away. And anyone who makes the Jonny Sexton/Daniel Carter comparison should remember that what Sexton did in the second half against Northampton Carter has been doing year in, year out.

All the same, the mind does race ahead to September 17 and our meeting with Australia and the thought that if we could turn over the least invincible of the big three we'd probably be rewarded with a quarter-final against Wales and a semi against France or England, victory in which could guarantee perhaps the biggest day in the history of Irish sport.

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself and we will lose to Italy after all. But whatever happens the last two and bit months have shown Irish rugby at its very best.

Perhaps I used the wrong science fiction analogy because. March 12 seems to have been affected not so much by a time warp as by a black hole. Right now, it's like it never happened.

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