Friday 15 December 2017

Eddie O'Sullivan: We won't know what we've got until he's gone

Sometimes in sport, fact can seem stranger than fiction. Tony D'Amato's speech in the movie 'Any Given Sunday' has been recycled almost as often as Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" address, yet -- believe me -- it retains a fundamental truth.

The title of the movie wasn't just the catchy brain-child of producer, Oliver Stone. It is actually a common expression in American Football because of the belief that, on any given Sunday, one team in the NFL is pretty much capable of beating any other.

And it strikes me that the same now applies with the Six Nations, a competition that has become absolutely engrossing for five weekends through February and March. It is, quite simply, the most successful rugby tournament in the world. And last weekend told us why.

In many minds, Scotland came to Croke Park as no-hopers. They'd lost to Italy -- the perennial Wooden Spooners of the tournament -- and they had imploded dramatically against Wales, conspiring to throw away what looked an unassailable winning position in Cardiff.

Logically, they surely had no business believing they could come to Croke Park and deny last year's Grand Slam champions their fifth Triple Crown in seven years.

What's more, the Scots hadn't won a Championship game in Dublin since 1998, when Brian Ashton was Irish coach and we were headed for a whitewash. If most of the current team weren't quite in short trousers at the time, let's say they were probably worrying about the Junior Cert.

But win Scotland did last weekend.

Why? Because as Al Pacino's character, D'Amato, declares: "The inches we need are everywhere around us..."

And the very same inches that got Ireland over the line in Cardiff last season (remember Brian O'Driscoll's try; Stephen Jones' last-second kick) fell the way of Andy Robinson's team on this occasion. That's how fine the line is now between victory and defeat in the Six Nations.

Two weeks ago, Dan Parks hit the post twice against England. In other words, Scotland were little more than a coat of paint away from beating Martin Johnson's team. Last Saturday, Parks' winning kick set out left of the posts before drifting back in on the breeze to deny Ireland the Triple Crown. Again inches ...

Ireland, I imagine, will look back on this year's tournament with a fair degree of disappointment. No shame maybe in losing to France in Paris, especially given our history there. But that game highlighted worrying aspects of our defence that, having been eradicated against England and Wales, seemed to re-appear with 10 missed tackles against Scotland. Frankly, an 86pc success rate in the tackle count is not good enough at this level.

Trust me, if we had been playing against a team with more pace and strikers on the field, the day would have been a lot more painful. Ireland's tackle statistics must be a serious disappointment for defence coach Les Kiss.

Our discipline improved significantly from the previous two games but, unfortunately, Parks successfully kicked five of the seven penalties we conceded. Again, to my mind, this shows that we effectively dodged a bullet against both England and Wales.

Maybe the worst kept secret in international rugby is the problem we now have with our scrum. We seem to be endlessly under pressure here, our difficulties often compounded by the interpretation of a particular referee. The temptation must be to wrap John Hayes up in cotton wool and say a few novenas that he stays healthy through to next year's World Cup.


I know that 'Bull' has his detractors but, frankly, we are in huge trouble if anything happens to him. Put it this way, Tony Buckley coming off the bench last Saturday with just one minute remaining hardly constituted a resounding vote of confidence in his candidacy as the natural heir to Hayes' crown.

With RWC 2011 now less than 18 months away, it is imperative that John follows whatever regime it takes to get him to New Zealand intact.

We had an untypically bad day in the line-out against Scotland. Personally, I would regard this as a one-off, an aberration that is unlikely to be repeated. For maybe eight years now, Ireland's line-out as been regarded as one of the best in the world and I don't think one disappointing outing changes that.

The funny thing is that many of the problems we faced against England and Wales -- lack of possession, very few line-outs, the concession of too many penalties -- were resolved last Saturday. But, unfortunately, we defended really poorly, lost seven of our own line-out throws, generally made too many errors and -- maybe most critically -- came up against a world-class place-kicker in Parks.

I'm still not really sure what gameplan Ireland followed last Saturday. Ordinarily, you have to earn the right to play champagne rugby at this level.

By that, I mean you first win the hard yards before giving the backs licence to entertain. Ireland didn't do that. They seemed to put the cart before the horse and, whether this was down to a lack of mental focus, only the team and management can tell.

You would have to say, the defeat (and nature of it) came as a surprise. But maybe that's the beauty of the Six Nations now. On any given Saturday, if a few line-outs go awry, if you miss a couple of tackles and if the opposition kicker is in the zone, you can end up mere inches the wrong side of the score line.

D'Amato rightly declared: "They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team, we fight for that inch ... "

Ireland didn't really do that last Saturday.

The players will, I have no doubt, privately seethe with themselves that this should have been the case on their final game at Croke Park.

Maybe, as Stephen Ferris averred, they simply got caught up in the sense of occasion.

Whatever the reason, Ireland left a Triple Crown behind them and that's a pretty harsh lesson to swallow for a group of such highly driven people.

Long-term, it's now up to them how they react to it.

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