Monday 20 November 2017

Irish prospects on hiding to nothing

Brian O'Driscoll. Photo: Getty Images
Brian O'Driscoll. Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

I remember the 1979 Irish rugby tour of Australia very well. It came at a time when I was beginning to take a big interest in rugby, so much so that I kept a scrapbook of the newspaper reports. And my interest was richly rewarded because it was the most dramatic of tours.

For a start, it saw the extraordinary decision to drop Tony Ward, Ireland's star player and one of the most popular sportsmen in the country, from the Test team and replace him at out-half with Ollie Campbell, who had slipped into obscurity after receiving a single cap for Ireland three years earlier.

Campbell then proved the decision correct with a record 19 points in Ireland's 27-12 victory in the first Test, that most exciting of scrum-halves Colin Patterson completing the points total with two trademark tries.

The second Test was much closer and even more exciting. Ireland fought a magnificent rearguard action, with Mike Gibson in his last game for his country defending superbly. A young full-back named Rodney O'Donnell, who'd been knocked unconscious by a late tackle in the first Test, bravely fielded the most testing of high balls. And Campbell dropped a beautiful late goal to seal a 9-3 victory and a series win few had expected.

There is another compelling reason to remember the events of June 9, 1979 in Sydney. That second Test victory is the last win by Ireland in the Southern Hemisphere. Thirty one years and nine tours have gone by since then and the record reads: played 20, lost 20. Or if you add in World Cup games played below the equator: played 23, lost 23.

The majority of these losses have taken place since the new millennium witnessed a drastic improvement in the standard of Irish rugby. This improvement has led to much careless talk about Ireland being world class and in a position to challenge the big three.

But the 0-23 figure does not lie. South Africa, the All Blacks and Australia have no problem winning Tests on this side of the world. England and France have bagged eight victories each in the southern hemisphere since 1979. But Ireland simply can't cut the mustard. There have been some heroic performances in defeat, and some terrible ones, but defeat has been our lot every time.

We will head off to next year's World Cup in New Zealand with lots of brave talk about fancying our chances against Australia in the group stages and against all comers after that. The same kind of talk precedes every tour south. As the team leaves, we're told they won't be satisfied with anything but a long overdue victory. When they return, we're told they are focusing on the positives gleaned from the latest round of losses. There were even suggestions that Ireland now know they have nothing to fear from Australia next year. Which may be true if you take the position that defeat is nothing to be scared of.

It's a telling figure. 0-23. And what it tells us is that Ireland are a world-class rugby team in the same way that England are a world-class soccer team.

Sadly, Brian O'Driscoll has as much chance of winning a World Cup medal as the people of Mohill have of seeing Leitrim come through the back door to win this year's All-Ireland football final.

Sunday Independent

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