Monday 16 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Excuses can no longer be tolerated by Irish football'

Rugby revolution shows what can be achieved with proper planning and right people at helm

Haka Can: Ireland players stand shoulder to shoulder against New Zealand’s pre-match haka prior to Saturday’s famous victory. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Haka Can: Ireland players stand shoulder to shoulder against New Zealand’s pre-match haka prior to Saturday’s famous victory. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Irish rugby is on top of the world this morning. Whatever the rankings say, Ireland have been the best team on the planet this year.

That's something new for an Irish team in a major sport. Yet Irish soccer fans once knew that same top-of-the-world feeling. Right after the 1-0 win over Italy in the 1994 World Cup group, quite a few imagined us winning the tournament.

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Given that Italy eventually reached the final, those dreams weren't entirely crazy. You can also argue that, given the strength of competition, the soccer team's achievement in reaching the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals remains the gold standard for Irish international sides.

Where was the rugby team in 1994? Winning one game out of four in the Five Nations before suffering a 2-0 Test series defeat in Australia. Ireland hadn't been out of the bottom two in the Five Nations since 1987 and it would be 2000, when Five became Six, before they'd win more than one game in the competition.

Saturday's win over the All Blacks was a kind of apotheosis for Irish rugby. Greater things may lie ahead yet this victory is in itself a hugely significant landmark on the long climb from irrelevance to excellence.

The graph of soccer's fortunes traces an opposite trajectory. Last week's performances by our two most popular national teams presented a striking contrast. Saturday confirmed that Irish rugby has never been better. On Thursday, the soccer team's performance against Northern Ireland suggested we haven't been this weak since the days before John Giles.

This year the rugby team played 11 matches and won ten of them, scoring 35 tries. They won only the third Grand Slam in our history, scored a first southern hemisphere series victory in 39 years and beat the All Blacks at home for the first time ever.

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From Johnny Sexton's drop goal in Paris to Jacob Stockdale's wonder try on Saturday, they made a host of magnificent memories. They command national affection and respect. Their manager is the best in the world.

This year our soccer team have played eight matches and won one, scoring four goals. They have been relegated to Division Three of the Nations League and rank 32nd in the world, a drop of nine places since 2016. Wales beat us home and away.

The most memorable moments were a row between Roy Keane and Harry Arter and the potential defection of Declan Rice. They have become a national joke. Their manager is past it. They're playing Denmark tonight and I don't care and neither do you.

The remaining defenders of the soccer status quo insist this decline is inevitable because 'the players just aren't there.' But the same was said when Ireland were rugby whipping boys in the nineties. Surely, the excuse ran, Ireland could never be expected to overcome countries with much greater player numbers.

It wasn't an unreasonable point. Ireland's current rugby status is a minor miracle. On the face of it we shouldn't be able to compete with England, who have over 100,000 more adult players than we do, or France and South Africa who have around five times as many. Yet Ireland do not just compete, they excel. Not just at international level but in a European Champions Cup specifically redesigned to disadvantage us.

Rugby may be growing in popularity here but it trails Gaelic games and soccer in terms of participation. Instead of bemoaning this demographic disadvantage, the IRFU have created a system which consistently produces young players capable of contributing at the highest level.

Saturday's victory was achieved without Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw, Dan Leavy and Seán O'Brien, all world-class players. By the end with Peter O'Mahony off the field, Ireland had a wing-forward combination of Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy which no-one would consider a possible first choice.

It functioned admirably. The gruelling nature of the contest prevented Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton from finishing but the callow duo of Jordan Larmour and Joey Carbery stepped in and stepped up.

A system which takes someone from a GAA background like Tadhg Furlong and turns him into the world's best prop is obviously working. Yet two decades ago the IRFU and its 'blazers' were mocked in the same way the FAI is now.

Rather than retreat into defensiveness the Union got its act together.

Decisions such as the sackings of Warren Gatland and Eddie O'Sullivan, the targeting of Project Players and the dropping of those who moved overseas were not universally popular. But the IRFU were motivated by a ruthless desire to extract the maximum from their resources. They were proved correct.

The big difference between Irish rugby and soccer is in the way things are done at the top. The IRFU put everything else second to the achievement of excellence, and that includes personal ego. Their chief executive Philip Browne could walk down most streets unrecognised.

This attitude carries through to teams whose players always seem 100pc committed to the collective project. Peter O'Mahony's heroic performance on Saturday was emblematic of this. Such efforts offer an inspiring vision to Irish youngsters.

Paranoia

The soccer team seems in thrall to the kind of worldview which once prevailed in sclerotic Eastern European dictatorships. The paranoia, the endless self-pity and the crushing tedium of the whole enterprise inspire only contempt.

Martin O'Neill and John Delaney seem like bureaucrats who don't really care what the public thinks because they're assured of a job for life. They react to criticism like the woman in the seventies 'Liga' ad tut-tutting: "Children these days, so demanding." Delaney suffers from delusions of grandeur, O'Neill from delusions of adequacy.

If an Irish team, "just doesn't have the players," the buck stops with the Association which runs the game in this country. Irish rugby stopped making excuses a long time ago. Soccer must follow suit.

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