Wednesday 16 October 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'For quite a few, this is not the team of us for it's the team of them'

Japan's Ryohei Yamanaka in action against Ireland's CJ Stander and Tadhg Furlong during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Pool A clash in Shizuoka. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su
Japan's Ryohei Yamanaka in action against Ireland's CJ Stander and Tadhg Furlong during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Pool A clash in Shizuoka. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

If you've ever taken in the mighty works and words of George Carlin - and by now you really ought to have - there's a fascinating thesis he had around our soft modern use of English.

His premise was basically that "smug, greedy, well-fed, white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that".

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He went on to give examples as, in his lifetime, toilet paper became bathroom tissue; the dump became the landfill; and, while the poor used to live in slums, now the economically disadvantaged occupy sub-standard housing in the inner cities.

"Like when the airlines tell us to pre-board," he brilliantly carried on.

"What the hell is pre-board? What does that mean? To get on before you get on? They say they’re going to pre-board those passengers in need of special assistance… Cripples! Simple, honest, direct language. There’s no shame attached to the word cripple that I can find anywhere in any dictionary."

Joyous. And there's an obvious area within Irish sport where we could and should take note.

In the immediate aftermath of the rugby side's heroic and epic failure against Japan, RTÉ returned to studio for what used to be a pit of truth.

There though Daire O’Brien opened the autopsy by stating that "there was no massive under-performance from Ireland". Enough.

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Japan players celebrate after the Pool A win over Ireland on Saturday. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

So television switched off, it was to their website where the headline didn’t deride Ireland in any small way, but put it down to "awesome Japan", and where the starter's ratings averaged out at six per player in green.

Onto the radio then, and over to an Irish station where Marcus Horan had taken an unplanned call as the breaking and brutal news came through. His final take from it? "Someone's going to get a backlash from this Irish team.” 

Soft language. Safe language. Comforting language.

Ultimately the same lying language we're subjected to around Irish rugby in predictable cycles. 

The problem is the same reaction has never provided a different action, yet all the while we continue to hand out free passes based on a sorry rationale.

On the field, exaggerating wins and cushioning defeats. But off of it as well.

All dealt with quietly and given a wide berth when other sportspeople are subjected to some serious scrutiny.

In this realm though they are great ambassadors and, while some are, it's given out so cheaply to all based on who they are and not what they do.

Even a terrible parent knows that always hug the child and shield it from its errors, and you’ll just get more of the same. Except here we are.

There's a good reason for the deception of course but it’s a secret as sacred as those within The Magic Circle. Last November I took a call from a radio show in the immediate aftermath of the test victory (remember it's not a friendly when we win) over New Zealand.

I said it was very good for sure, and proceeded to talk about how it was no more than that given the circumstance of location and timing and injuries, and that the real stuff would start towards the tail of 2019.

From there I went on to give a long list of the types of hyperbole that served no one well, and certainly didn't serve honesty and truth well. 

It was "the pinnacle of Irish sporting achievement". It "confirmed our status as one of the top two teams in the world regardless of what happens in the Six Nations". Joe Schmidt should be "brought in to sort out Brexit".

Jacob Stockdale scored the winning try as Ireland beat New Zealand 16-9 in November (Niall Carson/PA)

He was "without doubt the best in the world" too. Jacob Stockdale was "the embodiment of not just how Joe Schmidt builds teams but people". There were "parallels with England's World Cup-winning team".

I haven't been on that show since and, while that's completely fine and it isn’t a complaint or a grudge, it does illustrate that there are some parts of Irish sport that are off limits to reality.

There's no room for context. The attitude - with occasional exceptions - is pander here as it pays.

All in all, there is no busier junction of sport and business on our island. Let’s call it Bullshit Corner, where the customer is always right.

It's one of the reasons that a silent and sizeable cluster have never bought into the Irish rugby team despite their smaller-time successes, as they have with other national sides.

There's a feeling out there that this has been shunted onto the masses by marketing, all because of the financials based on a class in society who get behind it and quite literally buy into it.

If there are those who have a passion for it, more power to them and enjoy it; but anyone with a differing viewpoint is shouted down and called out as negative and a begrudger, as if a passport demands support.

For quite a few though, this is not the team of us for it's the team of them.

Of the 31 that headed east atop the world rankings, four were from Northern Ireland and another four didn't go to school on the island. Yet of the other 23, 16 went to private institutions beyond the reach of most.

That's 70 per cent in the panel that many just cannot relate to. Rightly or wrongly, due to both history and the present, there are those who cannot hold hands in a line-up with Mary's and Belvo and Christians and Michael's, and Gerard's and Wesley and Andrew's and wherever else is busy forming the leaders of tomorrow in a closed shop.

Shoulder to shoulder? There are many who couldn't run fast enough from such an attitude. That is how they view Irish rugby. Yet utter as much and you might as well watch Twitter followers trickle away as if a stock market crash. 

That's not to undermine the occasional Six Nations, but there's a great misconception around greatness here. They're like a boxer throwing an early flurry before being knocked out when the pace picks up and the going gets tough.

Those more local wins have been damn fine achievements in between World Cups and they will never go away, but in the modern and professional era of rugby this is the test of greatness. 

It's the one and only time when everyone gets it together and has planned and peaks en masse. Sadly, it’s also the time our boasts become embarrassing.

Indeed it's the perfect projection of that south Dublin, private school culture for, while it's mouthy and proud in its own surrounds, out in the big world it realises its small standing. If the globe has an itch in it’s throat, we provide the laughter to scratch it every four years.

If you’ve ever looked at the English soccer team’s delusion, then it’s time to hold up the mirror.

Japan celebrated at the final whistle of their 19-12 victory over Ireland in Shizuoka (Adam Davy/PA)

On this occasion what it has left us is with the arguably the most humiliating results in Irish sporting history. Certainly it's up there with Macedonia and Liechtenstein and Cyprus on a soccer pitch, but as we are told so often this is the third biggest stage in the world.

And we have just wandered out onto it talking smack while draped in nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes.

This isn't to disrespect Japan either for they've brought a joy to more than one island.

But let's get real here for while many buy the hype, the bookmaker's tend not to and Ireland were 1/14 with a 21-point handicap thrown out to lure in those who needed some action to get involved in what ought to have been a foregone inclusion.

Then we choked. Then we panicked. Then we collapsed.

Theirs isn't a rugby country (like we are forcibly told that ours is) to the point that having known they'd be hosting the event more than a decade back, in their 31-man group is an Australian, a Samoan, four New Zealanders, two South Africans, a South Korean and six Tongans.

That's nearly half their squad and, while we cannot talk about project players, this illustrates a different point. Yet here they were, playing a soothing attacking rugby that we haven't known since Eddie O'Sullivan.

Ireland threw it around a little until they grew tired and stale and came under pressure - which was about 25 minutes in as thereafter we didn’t come close to scoring.

Joe Schmdit, pictured, will relinquish his role as Ireland boss after the World Cup (Brian Lawless/PA)

And when the heat went up Ireland reverted to the same predictable, robotic game that everyone knew they’d bring for the last four years.

Everyone knew too if they could match Ireland in terms of muscle, then they'd match Ireland on the scoreboard. It’s exactly how this played out.

Remember how this time we were deeper in quality? Remember how this time we had a gameplan? Remember how this time we'd learned from our mistakes? Remember how this time Joe Schmidt meant the past was like a foreign country? About that, and about the coach…

When he announced he was retiring, it was an abysmal error in judgment he should have been called up on, but instead we celebrated his legacy before it came to be defined.

Season after season when he persisted with Rory Best and Rob Kearney we were told it was loyalty when now it looks like lunacy. When he dropped Ultan Dillane for Jean Kleyn we were told it was okay as he knew what he was doing.

When so much went wrong in recent months we were told he knew how to get them peaking on time. So much for all of that.

There are relatively good losses in rugby, with the Six Nations opener helpful in terms of calming it all down, and the thrashing in the build up by England not all that damaging in terms of getting focused and facing the workload needed.

However this was an abysmal loss. It’s unforgivable.

Only it will be forgiven.

We await to hear how Japan will never know what it was like to be the best team of 2018. Or that the bonus point is to be welcomed and could be key to advancement from a tough group. Or how there's a golden generation coming through and 2023 is much closer to home anyway. 

Or how a quarter-final is still there and that's when we must come good.

Soft language though.

It continued to make for a soft team.

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