Thursday 14 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Ireland are world-beaters in the crying game

Beauden Barrett scores the All Blacks’ second try despite the efforts of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin last weekend. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Beauden Barrett scores the All Blacks’ second try despite the efforts of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin last weekend. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

In the famous BBC television series Civilisation the art historian Kenneth Clark talks about the destruction wrought by the Vikings and quotes an Irish writer of the time as lamenting, "If there were a hundred tongues in every head, they could not recount or narrate or enumerate or tell all the Irish suffered of hardships and of injuries and of oppressions in every house at the hands of those valiant, wrathful, purely pagan people." Clark pauses for a second before quipping, "The Celts haven't changed much."

When I first saw this my reaction was the old defensive one, 'Who does he think he is, mocking us in his posh English accent.' But Clark's ancestors were Scottish so he was, to some extent, a Celt himself, and in the same programme had given the Irish plenty of credit, looking lovingly at the Skelligs, the Book of Kells and the monks of Iona. His dry one-liner actually captures an essential truth about Irish people. We are world-class moaners. Maybe we're not the world champions but we'd certainly make the knock-out stages at the finals.

It has been ever thus. In fact recent examination of the Book of Kells has revealed that at the bottom of one page is a complaint that all these illuminations are no consolation to the people made homeless by the water charges. On another someone describes the gospel's love-thy-neighbour message as "political correctness gone mad".

Our reaction to last week's defeat by the All Blacks fits proudly into this great tradition. In a bravura week of national self-pity it has been generally agreed that we were essentially robbed of victory, that the All Blacks are a disgrace to the game of rugby and always have been, that the Irish players were put in danger of losing life and limb, and that Irish supporters have been utterly shocked by the cynicism on show at the Aviva. Ochon agus ochon o, basically.

I can moan with the best of them. The piece I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the game hewed pretty closely to the robbery theory. Mature reflection reveals a much less black-and-white picture. For one thing, it's obvious now that in trying to stop Beauden Barrett touching down for the second try Johnny Sexton grabbed the All Blacks out-half by the neck. The alternative to awarding a try to the visitors was awarding them a penalty try and giving Sexton a yellow card. In this instance referee Jaco Peyper actually did Ireland a favour.

Predictions that Sam Cane would be banned after being cited for his tackle on Robbie Henshaw also proved to be ill-founded. Looking at the incident again it's hard to construct a case for this being a major injustice. The idea that Ireland were robbed was also given legs by Rory Best's decision to approach Peyper in a bid to have the TMO look at the third try at a stage when Barrett was already lining up the conversion. Didn't this unusual action by the captain show how badly Ireland were being treated? Maybe. Or maybe it just reflected Ireland's frustration at the fact that having dominated possession for the second half they'd just been sucker-punched by a score of a genius.

To cap it all we decided to take further umbrage at the New Zealand media's suggestion that all this whinging was the kind of thing you'd expect from Ireland. There is a certain 'takes one to know one' element about this particular criticism. Bad and all as we are, we've never claimed that we lost a big game because the opposition poisoned us beforehand. And there was undoubtedly a cynical element to the All Blacks' play on Saturday. But their press does have a point. Suggestions that New Zealand were not just savage on Saturday but have always been so while the Irish are mere babes in the wood by comparison, are nonsense of the highest order.

Alan Quinlan gouging Leo Cullen, Trevor Brennan assaulting a spectator, Paul O'Connell almost beheading Dave Kearney, Peter Clohessy walking on a Frenchman's head, Sean O'Brien taking out Pascal Pape off the ball. These incidents have one thing in common and it's not that they were carried out by undercover All Blacks in disguise.

What they have in common is that the very people who are now professing self-righteous shock at less-serious offences by the All Blacks were keen to find extenuating circumstances when it was our own in the dock. Brennan's offence was followed by so many encomia to the wonderfulness of his character, I remember thinking that if he'd attacked a second spectator he might have won RTE Sports Personality of the Year. The O'Brien punch, the epitome of a player being caught bang to rights, was accompanied by much moaning about the French 'making a big deal of it'.

You may also recall suggestions at the time of the O'Connell-Kearney incident that Joe Schmidt, then Leinster manager, was putting his chances of getting the Ireland job in jeopardy by condemning what had happened. Apparently by doing so he was going to lose the confidence of the Munster players. That doesn't look like much of an argument now. You would wonder what Schmidt thinks after a week of seeing his native country portrayed as the font of all rugby evil. Something like, 'The Irish haven't changed much', I suspect.

Sometimes we don't just excuse a lack of sportsmanship from our own players, we celebrate it. Rather than being regarded as shameful, the stamp on Olivier Roumat's head which earned Peter Clohessy a six-month suspension in 1996 seems to be regarded as just another part of the mighty legend of The Claw.

Similarly, despite all the terrific football played by Roy Keane, the moment of his international career most cherished in the popular memory is apparently the brutal foul on Marc Overmars in the early stages of the World Cup qualifier against Holland at Lansdowne Road in 2001. The attitude that this was the kind of intimidation ideal for putting the wind up the opposition is one we'd condemn wholeheartedly in the All Blacks.

We will be complaining about the Thierry Henry handball till the crack of doom. Yet almost everyone has forgotten what happened less than two years later in a home game against Armenia which Ireland had to win to make the play-offs for a place in the European Championship finals. In the 26th minute not only did Simon Cox go clear by controlling the ball with his arm, referee Eduardo Gonzalez then sent keeper Roman Berezovsky off for blocking Cox's shot with his shoulder. A double Henry if you like. Ireland scraped through 2-1 and probably wouldn't have won against a full Armenian team. Ronnie Whelan's insistence in the commentary box that he didn't want to hear about it pretty much captured the national mood.

Our attitude seems to be that unfairness is something perpetrated solely against the Irish. The fact that Shane Long won a penalty against Poland in Warsaw last year for a foul which took place outside the box is not worth mentioning. Better to focus on the penalty he might have had against Belgium at Euro 2016 and pretend this somehow might have altered the course of a game in which Ireland were as comprehensively defeated as a team possibly can be. Or to lend an ear to Martin O'Neill's mutterings that scheduling might have in some way cost us victory against France.

One bad decision against Michael Conlan is offered as proof that world amateur boxing essentially exists to facilitate the execution of a giant conspiracy against Irish fighters. Boxers from other countries are the victims of bad decisions too; last weekend for example Russia's Sergey Kovalev seemed to be robbed of the verdict against Andre Ward of the US in a world light heavyweight title bout between two of the very best fighters on the planet. But those decisions don't really count. In throwing the head completely at the Olympics, in a way Kovalev and most other robbed fighters manage not to, Conlan was expressing one of our most cherished beliefs. Namely, injustice against the Irish matters more because everyone else is always picking on us.

There is a fascinating set of recordings made on the Aran Islands in the 1950s of the keening women whose job was to lament at funerals. The sound is a spine-chilling echo from another world. Sometimes I wonder where that great tradition of bemoaning has gone. Then a referee gives a decision against Ireland in a big match and I remember.

If there were a hundred tongues in every head last week they couldn't have done any more whinging about the injuries and oppressions the Irish suffered at the hands of the valiant and wrathful All Blacks. It never ends, does it?

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