X -Files are bad omen for Ireland
Published 08/09/2011 | 05:00
WHATEVER way you examine it -- or dance around it -- there is no escaping the fact that Ireland's record at the World Cup is abysmal.
Pound for pound, no other country has underperformed on rugby's biggest stage with such consistency as the Irish. New Zealanders wring their hands about 24 years of disappointment since their inaugural triumph, but the All Blacks can still boast the most wins and points scored of any nation since 1987.
Italy's record is pretty grim, but they are still relatively new inductees as a serious rugby-playing nation and even the perennially underwhelming Scots (who have achieved nothing meaningful in the Five/Six Nations since 1999) can point to their history of never failing to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.
The most infuriating aspect to Ireland's World Cup flop-fest and no-shows is its logic-defying nature. The World Cup seems to act like kryptonite on Irish players who have proven themselves repeatedly in other competitive environments and it deposits us in the realms of the intangible -- a mental frailty which negates natural skills, saps resolve and envelops energy.
Open the 'X-Files' and a top five is easily selected. The quarter-final defeats to France in 1995 and 2003; the play-off penury of Lens in 1999 and the minnow-indulging horrors of Namibia and Georgia four years ago.
Those last two are the most relevant to this campaign, with the American opener now just three days away. History shows that the Irish must view the Eagles, not as birds of prey, but as Christmas turkeys ripe for stuffing.
Whenever Namibia and Georgia have been featured over here on television or in print during the extensive build-up to this tournament, the performances against Ireland four years ago are always highlighted as their "finest hour."
If the Namibia game was bad, the Georgian one was horrid and, like the Irish Civil War, there seems to have been a concerted attempt to airbrush that 14-10 Bordeaux victory from memory.
When the subject was raised at Ireland's final press conference in Queenstown before their transfer to New Plymouth, hooker Jerry Flannery admitted he was "hoping that wouldn't come up."
Briefly revisiting that harrowing evening, Flannery underlined how important it was to learn the lessons from that experience and "lay down a marker" against the Americans. And, even Denis Leamy, the man who saved Ireland from what would have unquestionably been the most embarrassing result ever, struggled with his recollections.
It was Leamy who managed to squirm his body between the ball and ignominious history as the utterly dominant Georgian forwards ground their way morselessly over the Irish try-line
with two minutes left. Probably the most important, single action of his Irish career, but the Tipperary man veers sharply away from any 'saviour' descriptions.
"So I'm told, but I don't think it would have gone down well if I started boasting about anything from that night. I've never even watched the replay of that game," said Leamy.
"I vaguely remember it, but the whole thing is a haze and a lot of us try to forget about it. A lot of us try to leave it behind because it was such a disappointing time in our careers. I possibly did stop him, but the comparisons between the two (Georgia and the USA), they are a little bit different, I hope.
"We prepared so well for the World Cup the last time, with our fitness, that we forgot about the rugby. We just weren't match hardened and it caught us.
"The Georgians were so physical that night that we were blown away a little bit. We struggled to cope with them and, in rugby, it's all about physicality and winning the collisions.
"We barely got out of it that night. It's something that we haven't been allowed to forget and probably never will, unfortunately."
If there was an upside, it was the determination Georgia and France 2007 forged in the players and in Irish rugby never to revisit those crushing lows and Leamy bubbles enthusiastically when outlining how things have improved vastly four years on.
"We don't laugh at it, we try and make a joke of it, but behind it all, we realise how serious it was," said Leamy of their 2007 isolation in the industrial outskirts of Bordeaux.
"We were living like monks, we weren't going out and in many ways, it was the wrong thing to do. We broke from what we normally did and we didn't enjoy ourselves as much as we should have.
"That led to a vicious circle, poor results and poor performances. That experience will stand to us this time around though. Already, it is a much better experience; we've only been here a week, but already it's so much more enjoyable.
"We're not cooped up in our rooms 24/7, getting to bed at three in the morning and getting up at 11, and training in the afternoons.
"We're out of the beds at 8.0am, have our breakfast and everything is set a little bit differently, just to get us out of the hotel and get us enjoying the atmosphere."
The days leading into a World Cup always spawn optimism, but the upbeat tone in the Irish camp appears entirely genuine. However, for now, Irish supporters still view the World Cup with more trepidation than anticipation and that will be the case until performances demand otherwise.
Georgia used that 2007 night as a springboard for their rugby development -- to the point where they are now rated the best of the 'second-tier' nations -- and, rather than banish the memory, Ireland should also embrace it with a view to attacking that woeful World Cup record.