Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 December 2017

Frustration yes, but let's celebrate our achievements

Ireland underestimated Wales but we punched above our weight in New Zealand, says Jim Glennon

A sea of green
A sea of green

Jim Glennon

It is a source of great national disappointment that we were reduced this weekend to the role of spectators, rather than participants, at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

This disappointment is a reflection of the role which rugby has assumed in the daily lives of a large cohort of the island's population. Ironically, it's also a reflection of the fickleness of sport and of the dangers of public expectation. Cast your mind back six weeks when the Ireland squad left the country almost unnoticed, on the back of a dismal warm-up programme.

As with everything, however, perspective is all-important. The highs of the victories over Australia and Italy, and particularly the manner in which they were achieved, gave the nation a much-needed boost which is why that horrible feeling of having had one put over us by the Welsh will take a while to dissipate.

The reality, as ever, is somewhere between the two emotional extremes and, no doubt, normal service will resume in the Six Nations, with Wales coming to the Aviva for the opening game.

Disappointment with our Rugby World Cup outcome can only be based upon those winning performances against Australia and Italy, combined with a lack of appreciation of the quality of the Welsh performances, against Samoa and especially in their opener against South Africa. Regrettably, we allowed our emotions get the better of us and closed our minds, to an irrational extent, to the pitfalls inherent in the Welsh challenge.

The perceived wisdom pre-tournament was that the ultimate victors would certainly come from the Big Five of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France and England. In fact, few, if any, looked beyond the southern hemisphere. Where did we fit in? Quarter-final against South Africa was the limit of most expectations, and even that was with considerably more than lip-service being afforded to the challenge to be posed by the Italians.

Our performance against Australia changed everything however, both for ourselves and for any team with realistic ambitions of success. The draw was unexpectedly turned on its head and the resultant tremors permeated the entire tournament, even leading to a performance from the French against the All Blacks which, in racing parlance, was worthy of a Stewards' Enquiry. All was changed, changed utterly, and the historic result altered the mindset of the nation. That new mindset was consolidated with another outstanding performance, particularly in the second half, against the troublesome Italians.

Somewhere in that heady atmosphere we lost sight of the reality of both of those games. Australia were without two cornerstones of their effort, prop Stephen Moore and flanker David Pocock; the latter's absence was particularly significant in that it transformed what had been, for us, an area of grave concern (particularly in the absence of David Wallace) into one of real opportunity, seized upon wonderfully by Seán O'Brien. O'Brien and his flanker colleague Stephen Ferris continued against Italy where they had left off against the Wallabies with probably the most physically forceful display ever from a pair of Irish flankers, and were pivotal to counteracting the Italians' hallmark physicality.

What was a finely-balanced affair was distorted significantly however by the injury to Martin Castrogiovanni, the acknowledged anchorman of the Italian effort. Subsequent to his withdrawal, their resistance disintegrated to the extent that Declan Kidney was afforded the luxury of emptying his bench while Ireland racked up the points.

Having become the first Irish team to win a World Cup pool, only Wales stood in the way of a first ever semi-final appearance. But Ireland clearly failed to recognise that this was a new Welsh side, with a good mix of youth and experience well distributed from front row to full-back, and brimming with fitness and confidence. And Wales did unto us as we had done unto Australia, almost to the extent that they used our approach to that game as their

template. An awesomely physical opening period and a crucial early try put us on the back foot, a position from which we never recovered through a combination of our own unforced errors of judgement and execution and also Wales' clinical nullification of Ronan O'Gara, Ferris and O'Brien.

It was a sad ending to the World Cup careers of some of the greatest players we've produced, but let's not exacerbate their personal disappointment by viewing their tournament through the prism of hindsight and unrealistic expectation. We have a tendency to expect our athletes to take on the world and then, when success eludes us, we apply world standards in judgment. We are an island of five million off another of 60 million. We do punch above our weight, not just in boxing, but in soccer, golf, and rugby to name a few, a remarkable achievement especially when one considers the proportion of our young athletes for whom Gaelic games are their discipline of choice.

This Irish team had a good tournament. Yes, they could have gone further, but it would have taken an outstanding side playing very well to beat Wales last Saturday. And yesterday's performance by Wales in the semi-final underlines that.

I know I'm out of sync here with the general consensus but we should celebrate the enrichment these players and their achievements have brought us. Indeed, all our sportspeople who carry themselves with such dignity and pride both on and off the pitch in sporting arenas everywhere. They, all of them, do us a considerable service.

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