Saturday 16 December 2017

Living in the past pointless exercise for Ireland rugby

Modern era of O'Driscoll and O'Connell the only barometer for our expectations

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

On Tuesday, 'Morning Ireland' broadcast an interview with Michael Lynagh, inviting the former Wallaby great to reconstruct Australia's fevered World Cup escape against Ireland at Lansdowne Road in '91.

It was an odd choice of focus, given the modern rugby rivalry that has developed between the countries in the quarter of a century or so since Gordon Hamilton's storied try. Out of their last four visits to Dublin, Australia have mined just a solitary victory and were, of course, also beaten by Ireland at Eden Park in the 2011 World Cup.

Even viewed through the warm, oily light of nostalgia then, the '91 game has never seemed less relevant to, or representative of, Irish rugby.

Since November of '06, the countries have met five times with the record standing at a draw and two victories each. The aggregate points tally in that period has been Australia 72; Ireland 83.

So, while Lynagh's polite recall of Lansdowne's plunge into distressed silence as a response to his last-gasp, winning try of 22 years back painted fine pictures, its context to today's game was a little difficult to divine.

Back then, native confidence seemed endlessly worn down by an impulse to romanticise heroic failure. From the moment Hamilton put Ireland in front with five minutes remaining and Ralph Keyes' conversion opened the gap to three points, it was as if the Irish players could hear God's voice in the wind, scolding them for their impudence.


The radio clip did, it is true, offer a reminder of that wonderfully plangent commentary voice of the late Tom Rooney. But, in rugby terms, the Ireland of '91 became redundant quite some time ago.

November now routinely brings the big juggernauts of the Southern Hemisphere to our shores and, however history's lop-sided figures might still paint those rivalries, that old, herd insecurity is no longer written into our nervous system. At least, not when pitched against the Wallabies or South Africa.

New Zealand? Well that, of course, is an entirely different ball of wax.

In the Bord Gais Theatre next Friday night, John Breen's marvellous 'Alone It Stands' will, no doubt, throw its millionth audience into side-slapping mirth with his satirical take on Munster's memorable win of '78. The timing, presumably, is intentional.

Just two days before Ireland play the All Blacks, the only Irish side ever to triumph against the silver fern will, again, have its story told.

Three of this column's favourite rugby people played in that electrically charged victory at Thomond Park. Moss Keane, sadly, is no longer with us. We once spent 10 side-splitting days on a golf trip in South Africa with Jimmy Bowen. Tony Ward we consider a good friend and trusted colleague.

But imagine you are Steve Hansen in Dublin next weekend. Imagine the psychological authority to be garnered from pointing your players towards that futuristic theatre down by the canal and this country's ongoing celebration of a 35-year-distant win.

To a current All Black, the name Graham Mourie might as well date back to the Druids, so the story of his Limerick fall will feel rooted to a distant, obscure time, long before any of them had even set foot on this earth.

It takes quite a leap of the imagination to go from whiteboard self-portraits of "the most dominant team in the history of the world" to fretting about a rugby community still celebrating its disbelief over some distant, dusty glory.

The Ireland we have come to know in recent seasons – the Ireland of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell – has surely long since evolved beyond the habitual disinterment of old archive material for psychological gain.

Both men have been Lions captains, both are broadly recognised as among the greatest players the world game has known.

It is often, quite rightly, remarked that neither man owes their country much now, but the same can hardly be said in return.

For the standards set habitually by O'Driscoll and O'Connell have been emblematic of Irish rugby's success in the professional age, success that brought a Grand Slam and small multiples of Triple Crowns and Heineken Cups. Both remain resolutely unsentimental in their view of the game. Actually, both play with much the same ruthlessness considered so innate in the psychological make-up of a Wallaby, Springbok or All Black.

O'Driscoll and O'Connell have built their careers then on respect for the past, yet strenuously avoided any hint of deference to it. History does not weigh them down.

Following suit might be our greatest tribute to that legacy.

Irish Independent

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