Thursday 14 November 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'From bus-gate to ref errors - repeated excuses show a refusal to accept failure'

Talking point

On the way out: Rory Best and Niall Scannell leave the field after Saturday’s drubbing at the hands of
New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
On the way out: Rory Best and Niall Scannell leave the field after Saturday’s drubbing at the hands of New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

If Irish rugby told the truth about 2019 its world would fall apart. Because the IRFU's entire commercial and promotional strategy is based on the idea that its teams are world-class units, its players world-class athletes and its coaching staff world-class in their various fields.

The preparation of the teams is portrayed as the acme of excellence, setting an example for all other sports in physical, mental and perhaps even moral terms.

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Irish rugby provides a template for not just sporting success but for achievement in business and everyday life. So the story goes.

The events of 2019, culminating in Saturday's sorry shambles, indicate that the slightly vainglorious claims made on Irish rugby's behalf just might not be entirely true.

The idols we've been instructed to worship don't just have feet of clay. It's entirely made of muck.

But the IRFU's world view does not admit such a possibility. So it's extremely unlikely that there will be any admission to the fans who travelled or those who stayed at home that the team were poorly prepared and about as a close to world-class as Thomond Park is to Tokyo.

What we'll get instead are excuses. Nobody does excuses like Irish rugby and this year has been an annus mirabilis for them.

It was obvious from the start of the Six Nations that the team had gone badly off the boil and were cruising for a World Cup bruising.

Instead solace was sought in suggestions that the management were holding back special world-beating plays for the big tournament and that Ireland's underwhelming form probably indicated a plan to peak at the finals.

Specific games had specific excuses. When Ireland were outclassed and hammered by Wales, a narrative of refereeing perfidy was deployed. If Wales hadn't kicked all those penalties Ireland might have won.

The team had apparently displayed a massive improvement since the defeat by England. In Joe We Trust was repeated as though it were a powerful mantra rather than an empty slogan.

The record trouncing by England was excused because that Ireland were apparently engaged in some kind of special training which made it easy for the opposition to run past, around and right through them.

Surely there could be no excuse for defeat by lowly Japan? Once the smoke had settled, Joe Schmidt revealed that the authorities admitted the referee made three wrong decisions. This suggestion that we'd been robbed was eagerly seized upon.

Schmidt had form in this area. Two years ago he'd banged on about the debilitating effects of the Irish team bus being eight minutes late to Murrayfield when we lost to Scotland. An Irish manager in any other sport would have been laughed at for this kind of thing. Instead, it was treated as further illustrating rugby's special commitment to excellence. Fine margins and all that.

The other big justification for the Shizuoka debacle was that Japan were actually a brilliant team. They'd really trouble South Africa. But they didn't.

Four years ago after Argentina stuffed us in the quarter-finals it was suggested that the Pumas might be the second-best team in the world. They got slaughtered in the semis by Australia.

Irish rugby is adept at getting the excuses in beforehand. When it seemed likely we'd be meeting South Africa in this year's quarter-finals, a photo of the Springboks, topless and suspiciously ripped, did the round of rugby fan Twitter. See what we're up against? Nod, nod, wink, wink. How could you beat those boys?

This new-found interest in Springbok musculature disappeared when the All Blacks became our last-eight opponents. It was time to bring up New Zealand's appalling disregard for the offside laws and their poaching of players from the South Seas nations. And their love of high tackling which provided the opportunity to rehash the 2016 game in Dublin, another one Ireland didn't really lose because the opposition cheated.

Sometimes the excuses are delivered from the high moral ground.

Witness the ludicrous palaver after Billy Vunipola liked a homophobic tweet by Israel Folau and tried to explain his position (as opposed to Bundee Aki whose 'like' apparently occurred by mistake).

We flogged the life out of this one, the implication being that Saracens' victories over Munster and Leinster were morally tainted. We'd prefer to lose than have a guy like that on one of our teams, so we would.

The rugby team have benefited from media sycophancy Irish soccer managers must envy. Just a week ago the win over Samoa was declared to be comprehensive redemption for the defeat by Japan.

Ireland's form in 2019 pointed to just one denouement on Saturday yet all week there were predictions that Joe Schmidt would relish underdog status, ignoring the fact that this resulted from a series of c**p Irish performances.

When all the excuses have been exhausted, the last resort of the IRFU et al is to say we should move on and not dwell on things.

Which would be admirable were it not that nobody dwells on things quite like the acolytes of Irish rugby. Didn't they make a bloody documentary about winning one game against the All Blacks, for God's sake?

After all the 'Game of Thrones' type build-up to the finals, all the montages, all the JFK quotes, all the moody black-and-white shots, all the Team Of Us and all the Rugby Country, is 'nothing to see here folks' the best they can do? Really?

When you see the sang-froid with which the IRFU greet defeat you can understand how once upon a time a bunch of rugby-loving guys persuaded themselves and others that everything would work out fine with the Irish economy.

"We go again," they probably said. Look where that got us.

The IRFU should come clean about the catastrophic nature of 2019. But they won't.

They can't handle the truth. It's not good for business.

Irish Independent

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