Saturday 17 August 2019

The days of preordained failure left far behind

Niall Scannell had an ordinary season with Munster but ended up having a fine series’. Photo: Sportsfile
Niall Scannell had an ordinary season with Munster but ended up having a fine series’. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Before heading for home from the 1994 version of this tour we took one last trot along Manly Beach, one of the many beautiful vistas in this part of the world. And there we happened upon a scene so entertaining it was not just fall-down funny but a metaphor for the trip itself.

Parked between the promenade and the ocean's edge was one of the IRFU committee men who had enjoyed the trip as much as the players, who clearly - given the results - had enjoyed it far too much. In what might have been interpreted by passers-by as performance art, he was trying to balance on one foot and get his jocks on without losing control of the towel that gave him a shred of modesty. It was like using a handkerchief to wrap up a seal.

Over the previous three weeks the Ireland squad had performed their own version of this little routine: hopelessly out of condition, they had hopped around trying to look like a serious rugby team, and in the process exposed all their wrinkly bits.

We don't know if any of the substantial IRFU party out here are doing the Manly Shuffle this morning, but you'd hope not. It is gratifying to have survived long enough to be writing about a competitive team on overseas tours rather than one beaten before they clear immigration.

Oddly enough Ireland were competitive too on the last occasion they played Australia in this stadium - Ireland's last Test here was on a miserably wet night against Namibia, in the 2003 World Cup - largely because it was the end of the tour. Nowadays you expect tourists to be running on empty because it's the end of a long season. Back in 1994 the timings were similar, but despite the amount of beer the tourists chucked down their necks they were fitter than they started by the simple expedient of training or playing close to six days a week.

Typically, though, the Aussies hadn't a rashers who most of the Irish players were, because with justification they didn't take them seriously. They knew Simon Geoghegan all right. He was blond, quick, and zipped and fizzed about the place like he had overdosed on caffeine. He also took his rugby seriously, and it frustrated him that lots of the others didn't. Boarding the flight home we remember asking Geoghegan if he ever thought he'd be back here with a team physically fit enough to challenge Australia over a series rather than an afternoon.

"Nah mate, that'll never happen," he said.

We don't know if Geoghegan still follows the fortunes of men in green but clearly we're well past that conditioning point. Leaving home more than three weeks ago the focus was on winning the series, and feathering the nest for the World Cup next year.

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Three back-to-back Tests is a wide enough window in which lots can go right and wrong. Coming out with your noses in front is the biggest result of all.

Along the way it brought good news for a handful of players in need of a boost. Joey Carbery came out here feeling very uncomfortable in the heat generated by speculation over where he would be playing his rugby next season. Getting a start in the first Test was like a reward for having put up with the attention and done what Joe Schmidt wanted: for him to chase game-time outside of Leinster.

Niall Scannell had an ordinary season with Munster but ended up having a fine series when he would have been watching it on television only for captain Rory Best to pull out before departure. And Rob Herring, who surely was delighted to put some space between himself and Ulster's season, made the most of every minute he spent on the field.

You can't have three hookers having a great time, however. Sean Cronin came out expecting big things but will want to forget the entire episode. So bad for him personally, but good for Schmidt that two of his three hookers delivered in the absence of the captain.

And Tadhg Beirne wasn't slow about coming forward when his number came up. In his 13 minutes on the field here in Sydney he put a turbo charge into Ireland's threat to Australia's ruck ball. He is a top quality rugby player who will play a bigger part in the World Cup.

It was clear after the Six Nations that only a handful of places were still up for grabs, even though the World Cup was 18 months away. This tour has served the dual purpose of putting another few names in the hat, and at the same time confirming Ireland's position as one of the top teams in the world.

The issue now is not to find more players, but to find a way for them to fix the disconnect between the days when they are all over territory and ball but the scoreboard is not responding. That's for Joe Schmidt to figure out. And he needs to do it, to ask more questions of the opposition, to get to a last-four spot in Japan. As for bottle, he has a squad with that in abundance. Crack on.

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