Monday 19 February 2018

I can take the despair, it's the hope I can't stand

Ireland were so far off the pace that Eamonn Sweeney wonders if we should have stayed in bed

Kinsale, Vinegar Hill, the negotiation of fisheries policy with the EEC, the time we entered that song by John Waters in the Eurovision Song Contest. They'll all have to shuffle over in the pantheon of great national humiliations to make room for Wellington 2011, the morning the nation got out of bed in the dark and ended up in a daze.

There's a John Cleese film called Clockwise where he plays a teacher in the Basil Fawlty mould who finds his best laid plans are being thwarted at every turn. Eventually he fumes: "It's not the despair, I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand." I suspect that may sum up the national mood after the latest debacle Down Under.

Let's face it, we're all grown-ups. We don't need to be mollycoddled with bullshit about looking at the totality of the Irish performance throughout the tournament. Because we know that the real stuff started yesterday and that once more we were found wanting. And perhaps the saddest thing of all is that the abject performance against Wales renders the win over Australia almost completely meaningless. It is the rugby equivalent of one of those Munster football final victories by Cork over Kerry which are reversed when the teams meet in Croke Park. It is a golden moment transmuted into dross by the alchemy of subsequent defeat.

Pointing out that Ireland had a good World Cup apart from the quarter-final is like suggesting that the success of President Kennedy's visit to Dallas shouldn't be obscured by one unfortunate incident in Dealey Plaza.

I suppose, to use that great mantra of our times, we lost the run of ourselves, imagining how we'd describe the great World Cup campaign of 2011 to our kids and grandkids. Well, that's still going to happen. They'll fly over to our house in their hovercars and say, "Grandad, did people really think back then that Ireland were going to win the Rugby World Cup? You guys must have been really weird." And we'll scowl and reply, "Go and play in the Virtual Reality Chamber. By the way, I really hated that souvenir you brought me back from Mars."

We're never going to make a World Cup final. It's just not in us. When Keith Earls' super slide for a try was followed by Ronan O'Gara's touchline conversion to make it 10-10, you could sense the relief flooding through the Irish team and spreading outwards to encompass everyone who'd pinned their hopes on the men in green. Finally, things were proceeding according to the script. That ominous music which had been playing in our heads ever since Shane Williams crossed the line had just been a red herring.

Yet the Earls try turned out to be the beginning of the end rather than the end of the beginning, presaging a half hour of almost total Welsh dominance which meant that they were far from flattered by their margin of victory, a margin which might have been more truthful had two of Rhys Priestland's penalties not come back off the woodwork. They beat us hollow.

You have to admire the chutzpah of Warren Gatland, a man who went for broke by including five players under the age of 23 in his line-up, rebuilding his team on the hoof to such an extent that the likes of Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne couldn't even make the bench.

It was a huge gamble and one which you'd imagine would have played into the hands of a much more experienced Irish team. We had beaten Wales 12 times out of the last 17. In the Heineken Cup and Magners League our players outclass yesterday's opponents with monotonous regularity. There was an audible licking of lips when we saw the 15 Gatland proposed to put into the field against our battle-hardened troops.

And then Wales proceeded to do to us what we did to Australia and have done in the past to England teams which looked superior on paper but forgot that rugby is played on grass. They produced an intensity we never came near to matching. From the start, the one-on-one cameos were telling -- Jamie Roberts going through Donncha O'Callaghan for a shortcut, Jamie Heaslip being marched over the touchline by Sam Warburton as though he were an unruly teenager being escorted to the door at the Wesley disco, Mike Phillips sending Stephen Ferris reeling backwards, Shane Williams holding Seán O'Brien up on the line.

Meanwhile, we waited for things to calm down and logic to reassert itself. But it never happened. Cian Healy struggled in the scrum, Heaslip and Ferris looked like the Welsh had smuggled a large lump of Kryptonite onto the field and stuffed it up their jerseys and the total failure of our half-back pairing was signalled by Kidney's dramatic double withdrawal of both Conor Murray and Ronan O'Gara after 55 minutes at which stage their uncertainty had put us comprehensively on the back foot. Perhaps he should have abided by the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' principle and stuck with the Sexton/Reddan pairing which did perfectly well against Australia.

Or perhaps it would have made no difference. Lineouts were lost, kicks put out on the full, passes spilled, tackles missed. We turned down points from penalties which might have steadied the ship and opted for close-in lineouts which brought nothing and greatly emboldened the opposition. It was as if our World Cup games, rather than the friendlies which preceded them, were the anomalies.

This has been a great-hearted team which has given a lot to us. But we won't be seeing much more of O'Driscoll, O'Callaghan, D'Arcy and O'Gara and the best years of O'Connell, Ross, Best and Reddan may well be behind them. Wales, on the other hand, are entitled to believe that tomorrow belongs to them.

We should have stayed in bed.

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