Saturday 22 July 2017

If only the play flowed like the excuses

Eddie O'Sullivan signs a jersey for Ethan Baxter at Dublin Airport yesterday
Eddie O'Sullivan signs a jersey for Ethan Baxter at Dublin Airport yesterday

Despite Ireland's worst ever performance at a Rugby World Cup, Eddie O'Sullivan yesterday faced down the public and attempted to launch a stirring defence of the disastrous campaign just 24 hours after his team's abrupt exit.

O'Sullivan again declined to accept any responsibility for the dismal efforts of his team, over which he had been offered unfettered control, with every whim and necessity compliantly delivered by the burghers of 62 Lansdowne Road. "It's not just me," he pleaded.

The proverbial list of excuses were trotted out -- the timing of the tournament, the lack of match practice (in July of all things!), the "paradigm shift" to playing, ahem, the high-risk rugby witnessed this month.

There was even an allusion to the fact that had Ireland not performed as well as they did in the autumn internationals and Six Nations, then expectations just wouldn't have been as high as they were, now would they?

Yet the signs are that an increasingly disillusioned public are getting tired of being hoodwinked by the same tired cliches and, instead of claiming blissful ignorance, are demanding that the coach betrays some confidence that he can put things right.

Perhaps the most revealing moment of a tournament that has seen O'Sullivan increasingly resemble a startled rabbit caught in the headlights was witnessed in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's game.

Asked by a television reporter whether he would consider his position, a perfectly acceptable journalistic query repeated several times since, O'Sullivan was almost insulted to have to address such a demand, as a subsequently humiliating public dressing down for the correspondent concerned amply illustrated.

Between them, this squad, management team and assembled coterie of anonymous blazers have constructed an ivory tower way beyond the reaches of the ordinary supporter, their paying public, and their loyal constituency. It is these supporters' blind faith that should be of most concern, not their own selfish self-interest.

Of course, the IRFU will not now allow themselves to admit the inglorious decision to accede to the infamous four-year deal, hence they will allow things to muddle on through another Six Nations campaign. Last night IRFU chief executive Phillip Browne strongly defended the decision to hand O'Sullivan the extension.

Faith

"We have put our faith in Eddie. We made decisions last May in terms of where we wanted to go over the next four years. That came to fruition in the form of a contract with Eddie for the next four years. We're very happy with that."

Unfortunately, O'Sullivan's defence of what went wrong appears to be lodged in the history books. The mantra of "knowing this team can perform" was trotted out repeatedly during this tournament. We waited. And waited. But nothing happened.

Why should we be convinced now? The evidence that this team is badly coached -- and not just by O'Sullivan -- is obvious. Selection policy was abysmal. The skills level were arguably the worst of all 20 nations. Some facets of forward play disintegrated alarmingly. Attacking threats were non-existent. Kicking ploys were ill-advised and poorly executed.

There is likely to be a selective cull of backroom staff but the main man will persist in absolving himself of any blame for the shambolic displays while he clings desperately to the relative glories of the past.

With a Heineken Cup winning squad and the best back-line in European club rugby, this team has careered frighteningly downhill despite being offered unlimited financial resources.

O'Sullivan's main gripe, in effect a criticism of his own planning, was that Ireland's build-up was insufficient to prepare them for top-class rugby in September. But what of Argentina, who completed the group with a superior points difference over Ireland of 138?

They have no regular competition, did not have a 10-week enclosed camp and played Chile and a Belgian invitation side. "We have shown that a romantic team without any proper preparation, with only some part-time coaches, playing only five international matches a year, can still be something on this stage," says their captain Agustin Pichot.

Viewed in that light, Ireland's faltering challenge deserves the harshest analysis. This team is badly coached and, sadly for a once bright, competitive group, it is as if the very marrow of life has been sucked out of them.

"What it is judged on is winning and losing," said O'Sullivan. But this has been a consequence-free environment, with the wrong players comforted by a security of tenure due to lack of forward planning, and a comfort zone amongst a head coach armed with a four-year contract and a pliant coaching staff relying on the cosseted head coach to keep them in situ.

And at the peak of this stale, arid regime are the blazers who decided to sanction the status quo regardless of performances at the highest level. It is Gubu-ism of the highest order.

When asked to sum up Ireland's last World Cup adventure, O'Sullivan claimed that in the event of a loss to Argentina then, "you could sum up my tenure as a complete 'gone nowhere situation'...If we'd lost that, people would have said we'd actually gone nowhere in the past two and a half years. The bottom line is that we failed to get out of the quarter-finals."

Where does that leave O'Sullivan and this Irish team now? "Yesterday's game was different than the one in Adelaide," he reasoned. "One point got us through then, one point wasn't any good for us yesterday because of a couple of things that were out of control -- Argentina beating France, Argentina managing to get a bonus point against Georgia in the very last minute of the game -- and something which was in our control, not getting a bonus point against Georgia ourselves.

"It is very easy to draw a line and say we haven't got to the quarter-finals but I have explained why it was different."

The bottom line has apparently shifted. Unfortunately, everything else remains depressingly the same.

Eddie's swings and roundabouts

"I think generally we are quite happy to talk about that and we can win the World Cup. I think we're capable of winning the World Cup." In an eve of tournament magazine article, O'Sullivan outlines his belief that Ireland can win the Webb Ellis trophy.

"We weren't the people who said we were going to win the tournament." After two calamitous opening performances, O'Sullivan swiftly changes tack.

"We've got to be careful and use the bench." Speaking on the importance of rotating "the best prepared" squad ahead of successive jousts with minnows Namibia and Georgia.

"Sunday's was such a bad performance that I feel the team needs another game together." O'Sullivan confirms the suspicions as he retains the same under-performing team who struggled to fend off the mighty Namibians.

"I don't understand why you would pick a weakened team just to put guys on the pitch." So the squad isn't as strong as we thought ...

"I think we were better than last week." Surpassing the previous week's optimism, O'Sullivan reacts to the narrow victory against a Georgian second-string side.

"I can spin you a big story if you're ready to take it down but the answer is that I don't know why we played so badly." Post-Namibia blues.

"I don't have a magic answer." Post-Georgia blues.

"I couldn't exactly put my finger on it." Post-Argentina blues.

"Maybe we should wait for the requiem until we're out of it. For now its onwards and upwards and we'll leave the review until after the tournament." O'Sullivan reacts to defeat by France.

"To be honest, I'm not really sure what's required next week." O'Sullivan, ever the perfectionist, pleads ignorance on what is now required to qualify following defeat by France.

"First we have to win the game." Strategising ahead of Argentina.

"We really had to go out there and attack this game in a bid to try to score four tries." Strategising after Argentina.

"It is difficult to say what went well but there were things we did better than people think we did."

The last word.

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