Thursday 19 April 2018

Irish may regret tooting their trumpet

Assumed superiority over Scots may come back to haunt them, says Eddie Butler

The only thing that stopped the announcement of an unchanged Scotland team to face Ireland today was the Good Lord. He does take a bit of side-stepping and the Scotland tighthead prop Euan Murray will take his day of rest; a tighthead prop honouring, as he sees it, the rather immovable obstruction in his way.

Funnily enough, the religious opt-out is just about the only clause in the casebook of absenteeism not to have been invoked in Ireland. Declan Kidney has had to grapple with just about all the other reasons: long-term injuries to Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris; new ones suffered by Simon Zebo, Jonny Sexton, Mike McCarthy and Gordon D'Arcy; the suspension of Cian Healy for stamping on Dan Cole.

On the other hand, there has been something biblical about the non-selection of Ronan O'Gara in the starting line-up. It has been so serious that the Irish have extracted huge comedic value from imagining the conversation between the two sons of Munster, between the softly-spoken coach who famously hates giving players the bad news that they have been dropped and the notoriously irascible outhalf.

Most of O'Gara's grandest performances have been lovingly extracted by Kidney and it would have been the coach's simple choice to tell his protégé to do it one more time.

Instead, he has given the No 10 shirt to Paddy Jackson of Ulster, all of 21 years old and uncapped. There was a time not so far back when Kidney would have been contemplating a three-quarter line for the Six Nations that went something like this: 15 Kearney, 14 Bowe, 13 O'Driscoll, 12 D'Arcy, 11 Zebo; 10 Sexton and 9 Murray. Now he has: Kearney, Craig Gilroy, O'Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Keith Earls; Jackson and Murray. Change was born of injury but not a small part serves as proof that Kidney may not be so conservative after all.

Such a transformation was given extra sensitivity by the transfer of the captain's armband from O'Driscoll to Jamie Heaslip, and now it includes the leapfrogging of O'Gara at 10 by Jackson. It is important, particularly in the light of the flat defeat at home to England, that the new formation clicks sooner rather than later. That last result exposed a rising tide of public doubt. The atmosphere and facilities at the Aviva Stadium have been given a right pasting, and, worse, the all-Ireland rugby cause seems to be fragmenting into the provincially self-interested.

Ulster have seven players in the match-day 23, a proportion commensurate with their top position in the Pro12, and their run to the final of the Heineken Cup final last year. Munster, sixth in the Pro12 and not quite the European force they once were, likewise have seven players in the squad, but there has been a scratchiness from some in the ferociously protective lower left-hand corner of the land.

It is the O'Gara issue that seems to have strained the binding. Some in Munster have responded caustically to the plonking of Ronan, even if he is 35, on the bench, while a child from the North starts. Others in Ulster see things differently. There is a simple assessment of reality – that O'Gara did not play with his historic authority against England and was far from his best for Munster away at the Scarlets in west Wales – but it appears that only Kidney, closer to his 10 than just about anyone, is able to take an objective view.

There is a danger in the fragmentation of the Irish collective. Rooted in a sense of power at the layer below international, there is a tendency to be disparaging about many opponents. Especially when it comes to Scotland. The Irish big three – Leinster, Munster and Ulster – routinely see off Edinburgh and Glasgow, and some of the language that goes with an assessment of what faces Ireland today may cause alarm. It is a given that Ireland anywhere near their best will beat Scotland, who are in places "meek", "competent but limited" and "downright awful".

These add up to a pretty mean insult and they also betray a lack of appreciation of how delicate it is to make a sum of parts. Ireland seem to assume that the successful model at feeder level should convert into a national side never out of contention.

Ireland have had one good half out of four. To treat Scotland as an opportunity to right the vessel that had no right to be overturned in the first place is to risk a charge of hubris. It is the word "meek" that raises the hackles, a scented rag that may be held under the nostrils of Johnnie Beattie and Sean Lamont before kick-off.

If words implying gentleness are appropriate on this day – and it is a day of bible studies for some – Ireland might remember that humbleness has shaped their rugby fortunes far longer than any toot on their own trumpet.


Irish Independent

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