Friday 24 November 2017

Brendan Fanning: Barbarians party makes more money than sense

Ireland ended up looking like Leinster against Treviso, writes Brendan Fanning

'On a miserably wet night in Thomond Park last week, Ireland closed their rugby season with a performance that was painful to watch'
'On a miserably wet night in Thomond Park last week, Ireland closed their rugby season with a performance that was painful to watch'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On a cold Saturday afternoon in early November 2014, Ireland opened their rugby season against a backdrop of unease bordering on fear. In the run-up to that game against South Africa, Joe Schmidt's theme had been all about the gradient: hard enough to climb the hill presented by the Springboks, harder still with injuries blocking your path. By kick-off time most of the injuries had been sorted, and Ireland played accurate and aggressive rugby, driven by the fear that if they got it wrong they would be emptied by their powerful opponents, and then filleted by their coach.

On a miserably wet night in Thomond Park last week, Ireland closed their rugby season with a performance that was painful to watch. The IRFU seemingly made a six-figure sum from the exercise in Limerick, as did the Barbarians, who, between broadcasters needing content and sponsors needing an outlet, are still swimming along with their heads above water. As a bookend for Ireland's stellar season, however, the exercise slotted in somewhere between bizarre and embarrassing.

Such is Schmidt's credit in the media bank that this was reported on the night as a fender bender rather than a car crash. Nothing to see, so move right along. Fair enough, but had Ireland been sexy and slick and outscored their opponents with some cracking rugby then the same reports would have been inferring all sorts of wonderful portents for the World Cup. It's the polar opposite of 'damned if you do and damned if you don't.'

One commentator went as far as to suggest that there were lots of positives in the exercise for Schmidt, despite the performance and result. Eh, no, there weren't.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt admits to having selection dilemmas
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt admits to having selection dilemmas

Rarely are there good news bulletins following these fixtures because, for whatever reason, Ireland getting involved with the Barbarians is like fetching up to a Riverdance audition in your runners. We're hot to trot, but always end up looking leaden-footed against the pros. We always have an added agenda, like a tour or a World Cup to prepare for, but then lose sight of it under the pressure to come to the Baa-Baas' party. They just arrive and play, go on the lash, and leave.

It got so bad on Thursday night that Ireland ended up looking like Leinster against Treviso in Matt O'Connor's last home game in charge. Funny thing: on that night, the phone was hopping with texts from all sorts about the awfulness of Leinster's coach. Not a peep about Schmidt.

If there wasn't a Guinness Pro12 final yesterday, and an Emerging Ireland spin to Georgia, and an Under 20 World Cup to service, then the right mix of players could have been thrown into this fixture. And very few of them would have had an outside chance of making the World Cup squad. Games against the Barbarians are not for frontline players trying to make a positive impression on the coach ahead of a big gig. They are for fellas with not much else on their minds other than getting into the spirit of an event which, in the professional era, has very limited appeal.

So this is actually good news for the many men in green who underperformed in Limerick. Interestingly, Schmidt afterwards mentioned how good it was to have Chris Henry back on deck, for when the ship sailed against South Africa back in November the flanker had been a late cancellation, and in scary circumstances.

Henry is getting back up to speed, and his tackle count must have been in the high teens on Thursday. It was a good workout too for Richardt Strauss, who has had his share of problems after bursting onto the scene, against his native South Africa, in 2012.

Both, however, will wince when they revisit their role in a set play late in the first half. They had been detailed to provide support for the new man Collie O'Shea, which as expected meant they would have to clean a ruck. Except they both fell out the side of it, forcing O'Shea to hang on to the ball, for which he was penalised.

There was no collective video session after this game, rather those involved will get clips of what they did right or wrong, and individual feedback by phone or email on what to do next time. It is some way removed from the tension which fills the room when the squad are in camp, and Schmidt puts on his white coat and comes across all forensic as he goes through the game, frame by frame. As they headed up the M7 late on Thursday night, both Henry and Strauss will have been glad to be waking up at home in the morning, and not in camp. And most of their team-mates will have had the same mindset.

Joe Schmidt, in the meantime, is no wiser from it all. He wanted as many players as possible to finish the season at the same time, to facilitate a unified launch towards the World Cup. And the number crunchers in the union wanted more beans to put in the jar. So they both got what they wanted. But don't dwell on how it happened, and don't delude yourself that, had there been a happier ending, it would have augured well for the future.

28 May 2015; Barbarians captain Shane Jennings is applauded off the pitch by Ireland players after the game. International Rugby Friendly, Ireland v Barbarians. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
28 May 2015; Barbarians captain Shane Jennings is applauded off the pitch by Ireland players after the game. International Rugby Friendly, Ireland v Barbarians. Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

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