Saturday 15 June 2019

Rugby's golden children exploded with the boom

Brian O'Driscoll doesn't look bad for 100, does he? And, as today's game against Australia at Croke Park begins our exit from the decade, Irish rugby doesn't look too bad either.

It's easy to forget how much things have changed when you're looking at them up close. This was brought home to me when I saw the great Steve Earle in concert last week and he observed that no country he plays in has changed as much over the past couple of decades as Ireland.

The difference can't just be accounted for by the passage of the years, the whole national mindset seems completely altered, to the extent that we can sometimes seem to be living in another country. You just need to step back and have a look to see how profound the changes are.

In the same way, it's easy to overlook the enormity of the alteration in the status of Irish rugby which has taken place in 10 years. The decade and the career of Brian O'Driscoll, with his 93 Irish caps and six Lions Tests, are almost coterminous. O'Driscoll made his debut for Ireland in June 1999 in a 46-22 defeat by today's opposition but he didn't play his first Six Nations match until the following millennium. His international career and the Six Nations are the same age, as the Five Nations breathed its last gasp in the final year of the '90s.

The Irish rugby team was truly dire in the '90s. Only once in that whole decade, in 1995, did it manage to win two games in the Five Nations. Six times we won one game out of four, once we managed a single point from a draw, twice we were whitewashed. We finished last in the table four times and second last six times. The '90s were to Irish rugby what the '80s were to the Irish economy. If there had been a rugby version of the International Monetary Fund, it would probably have stepped in and suggested we play some other game.

In the run-up to the year 2000 there were many hopeful suggestions that the world might miraculously become a better place in the 21st century, as if human nature rather than merely the calendar would change when we hit Y2K. Those wishful thoughts did not come true. But the change wrought in Irish rugby was remarkable. For the alickadoos, 2000 really was the beginning of a new age.

Ireland entered the decade worried that it might bring the humiliation of being sixth out of six, behind Italy, and further whitewashes. Instead, we won four out of five four times, three out of five on three occasions and topped the whole thing off with a Grand Slam and a Six Nations championship. The odd year out was the two-win campaign in 2008 which led to the departure of Eddie O'Sullivan.

That was also the only year in which we finished outside the top half. We were Six Nations runners-up on five occasions, a statistic which was used as a damning indictment of the team when they couldn't make the Grand Slam breakthrough but which now looks like a tribute to their consistency. Six appearances in the top two, an achievement shared with England and France, compare admirably with a mere pair for Wales. There was also the small matter of four Triple Crowns, the same number won in the previous 100 years.

We were wary of taking too much joy from these achievements as long as the final Grand Slam frontier had not been crossed. This was probably a good thing but now it's time to reflect on the greatest decade in the history of Irish rugby. In the space of 10 years we have progressed from penury to riches, a situation no-one could have foreseen when 2000 began with a typically abject 50-18 defeat to England at Twickenham. Things would, it appeared, be ever thus.

It looked like pure desperation when the team announced for the following match against Scotland at Lansdowne Road contained five new caps. The debut quintet was made up of John Hayes, Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Shane Horgan and Simon Easterby who went on to win 404 caps, and counting, between them. Ireland won 44-22 and two games later beat France in Paris for the first time in 28 years. O'Driscoll scored a hat-trick of tries that day and things haven't really been the same since.

Today Ireland rules Europe not just at international level, but at club level too. Ulster's Heineken

Cup victory in 1999 was a wonderful thing in the context of the times but the absence of English clubs from the competition meant no-one seriously regarded the Irish province as the number one team in Europe.

Munster's progress to the 2000 final, on the other hand, was the real thing, not least because it seemed so unlikely given the state of the game here. Now, with Munster and Leinster winning three of the last four, our Heineken Cup runneth over.

At the start of this decade, no one could have expected that Ireland would exit it as European numero uno. Back then the appalling vista was of English and French boots stamping on our face forever. In retrospect, the Triple Crowns won in 1996 and 1998 by U21 sides containing the likes of O'Gara, Denis Hickie, Malcolm O'Kelly, Mick O'Driscoll, Leo Cullen and Eric Miller look significant, as does the U19 World Cup victory in 1998 with a team that included O'Driscoll, Donncha O'Callaghan and Paddy Wallace.

But that's in retrospect. The subsequent struggles of many of the players on the U18 and U16 soccer teams which conquered Europe in 1998 shows that there was nothing inevitable about rugby's bright future. So, for that matter, does the fact that such outstanding members of the U19 team as Shane Moore, Kieran Campbell, Damian Broughall and Aidan Kearney never emulated the breakthroughs of O'Driscoll and O'Callaghan.

The noughties were better than we could have hoped for. But what are our hopes for the decade to come? The yardstick for all sides in this hemisphere is the great England team whose decade of dominance in our neck of the woods culminated in the 2003 World Cup victory. Mission finally accomplished, the team faded away soon after.

The question is whether the Six Nations victory was the equivalent of England's World Cup victory and will be followed by a similar slump, or whether it is our version of their Grand Slams in the early '90s. England pushed on from those clean sweeps in 1991 and 1992 to win Six Nations crowns in 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2001 before winning everything in 2003. Do Ireland have the resources to follow that kind of lead and enter an era where the southern hemisphere countries provide the team's real rivals?

It is an aging side but of the Grand Slam team, only O'Gara, Hayes and Jerry Flannery are over 30. There is a need for new stars in the front row, and perhaps in the second row as well. This may happen: 12 months ago everyone bemoaned the absence of serious competition for O'Gara; today he has both Johnny Sexton and Ian Humphreys breathing down his neck.

When we played Australia 10 years ago and Brian O'Driscoll started the first of 100 Tests, the future was so black you nearly had to wear one of those miners helmets with a lamp on to look at it. Today, like Bond villains, we can dream of world domination.

We'll have to wait and see whether the rugby boom is as transitory as its economic equivalent. Perhaps it was all a 'bubble' and we'll end up back in the dark days of the '90s. Or perhaps the good days will continue. A future based around the wisdom of Declan Kidney might well be brighter than one depending on the genius of Brian Cowen or Enda Kenny.

It would need to be. Because if Irish rugby was managed the same way as Irish politics, we wouldn't be thinking about wins over Australia. We'd be betting on Fiji, and moving to Tonga.

Sunday Independent

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