Sunday 17 November 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Ireland's year from hell might be the most dramatic decline in Irish sporting history'

‘This disastrous last 11 months will define the Schmidt era every bit as much as the glorious 11 months which preceded them. This was Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in rugby form’. Photo: Juan Gasparini/Sportsfile
‘This disastrous last 11 months will define the Schmidt era every bit as much as the glorious 11 months which preceded them. This was Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in rugby form’. Photo: Juan Gasparini/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

What else did you expect? Ireland's terrible year which led to a terrible Rugby World Cup campaign culminated in a terrible defeat. So 2019 has done for Irish rugby what 2008 did for the Irish economy. A team which lost to Wales by 18 points and England by 42 finished 32 adrift of the All Blacks. Quelle surprise.

This may have been, in terms of the disparity between expectation and performance, our worst World Cup campaign of all. The historical awfulness of the Japan defeat and yesterday's record-breaking humiliation make a pretty devastating combo. Come back 2007, all is forgiven.

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There are a few possible reactions to the Thumping in Tokyo. One is the 'we go again' take, popular with a certain section of the rugby cognoscenti. Just segue neatly to discussion of Joe Schmidt's fantastic legacy and the mighty contribution of Rory Best and speak as little as possible about what's transpired over the last month. That won't do.

The band of rugby sceptics will seize on yesterday's result to claim it shows up Ireland's triumphs of last year as essentially hollow, that the team was never as good as it was painted and has now been found out. But that's not satisfactory either.

Last year's achievements, the Grand Slam, the series victory in Australia and the win over New Zealand, were genuine and impressive. What has happened since may constitute the most precipitous decline in Irish sporting history. And part of Joe Schmidt's legacy will be that he presided over the fall from grace.

It may be that by announcing his retirement immediately after the win over the All Blacks, Schmidt set in train the process which concluded with a performance of such staggering ineptitude that Ireland looked like they'd scarcely been coached at all. The falling-off has been spectacular. Imagine suggesting, in the aftermath of last November's victory, that the next time the teams played the All Blacks would have over 30 points to spare. You'd have been accused of trolling.

The kind of gap we saw between the teams yesterday usually gives rise to the old comparison between men and boys. Yet this gulf was so great it called to mind a battle between a sophisticated civilisation armed with high-tech weaponry and a primitive one depending on the slingshot. Even if Ireland had played as well as they did in 2018 it's unlikely they would have prevailed.

Yet they shouldn't have been this bad. A side once renowned for its efficiency in avoiding errors made the most basic of mistakes. Ireland handled the ball like they were wearing particularly ill-fitting gloves. Fumbles were legion. The first All Blacks try came four minutes after a Robbie Henshaw knock-on had cost Ireland a promising attacking position.

In the 17th minute Johnny Sexton had the chance to pin New Zealand deep in their own 22. But his kick did not travel far enough into touch and Richie Mo'unga knocked it back into play. A minute later a hit-and-hope Irish kick was easily fielded by Beauden Barrett and a minute after that Aaron Smith was crossing for his second try and the game was effectively over.

Just after the half-hour, Sexton tried to find Rob Kearney but the fullback over-ran and the outhalf spilled the ball after a Sevu Reece tackle. The All Blacks hacked downfield and Barrett showed his possession of soccer as well as Gaelic football and rugby skills by dribbling over for try number three.

Conor Murray dropped a routine pass from James Ryan and box-kicked as though eager to provide the All Blacks with some undemanding practice under the high ball before the semi-final. When Ireland did edge to within a few yards of the line on the stroke of half-time, a pointless offence by Peter O'Mahony resulted in a penalty for his side being overturned. Sexton's touch-kicks were either short or didn't make touch at all. And on it went. In terms of the basics of the game Ireland were as far behind the All Blacks as Russia were behind Ireland. The team has been on a highway to hell since Jonny May scored in the first minute of the Six Nations and yesterday they arrived at their destination.

All the brave talk which preceded the game, suggestions that the All Blacks wouldn't fancy playing Ireland, that we'd be happier playing them than South Africa, that Andy Farrell would cook up some cunning defensive schemes to stymie them, that this New Zealand team didn't measure up to its most illustrious predecessors, that Schmidt would be delighted with the underdogs tag, were just so much whistling past the graveyard.

My personal sense of foreboding deepened in the build-up when Sexton lashed out at the "negativity" of those who criticised the team's performances. It struck me that a player confident of victory would wait until after the game and then really stick it to the begrudgers. This seemed like the complaint of someone who suspected Saturday might not be a propitious time for self-justification.

The truth is that Ireland have been poor all year and that only the most blinkered commentator could write off a defeat by Japan as just one of those things. One of the key parts of growing up is accepting that other people are not always compelled to accept your own estimation of yourself.

It may be that the bubble of professional sport, with its ever-present chorus of sycophants and supporters, is a poor arena in which to learn that lesson. You wondered if the correct response from the player's point of view would have been to emulate the awestruck tone of the woman from the Mace ad as she offers him, "A Sexton Sandwich."

That's not how it works. Irish rugby has been consistently, and deservedly, held up as the paragon of national sporting excellence. Yet things have gone catastrophically wrong this year. If you set high standards for yourself, people are going to comment when you stop meeting them.

Now is the time for Irish rugby to show a little humility. It might be a good idea for starters to put a moratorium on the term 'world class' for a while and not start bandying it about when someone does something good in the Heineken Cup. Because what yesterday showed most clearly is the heights which can be scaled by genuinely great rugby players and how lacking we are in players of that calibre.

Comparing Aaron Smith's performance and his range of skills to Conor Murray's it seems nuts that 12 months ago we were suggesting the latter had knocked the former off his perch as top dog scrumhalf. Sexton is much better than he looked yesterday but can hardly be compared to Beauden Barrett, who has all the Irishman's play-making skills when playing at 10, is an outstanding athlete to boot and plays fullback like Serge Blanco only better.

CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony are two willing warriors yet neither is in the same league as Kieran Read or Ardie Savea. The cruellest thing about yesterday is that it showed Ireland will never win the World Cup because we do not possess great players in the New Zealand sense of the word.

And that's a pity. Because this team has meant a lot to people. I feel for the ordinary Irish fans who travelled up from Australia to the tournament and for the exiles who gathered yesterday morning in the planet's Irish pubs in the hope of seeing something special. The idea that the rugby team's defeat is a triumph for the cause of social justice won't cut much ice with them.

There's been something tragic about Ireland's decline. After reaching an historical pinnacle we fell quicker and harder than anyone could have imagined. Maybe we'll have to wait for the autobiographies before we find out what went wrong this year.

Or maybe they won't tell us either, Irish rugby being somewhat addicted to dwelling on the positive side of things.

Yet something has gone badly wrong and this disastrous last 11 months will define the Schmidt era every bit as much as the glorious 11 months which preceded them. This was Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in rugby form. The buck stops with the emperor.

Never again will an Irish team travel to the Rugby World Cup with predictions of ultimate glory ringing in their ears. Goodbye to all that.

Saturday October 19, 2019, was the day the dream died. This was the unkindest cut of all.

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