Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 November 2019

Save us from this World Cup agony

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Hurray. The Rugby World Cup starts this week, a feast of top-class games played by the greatest teams and greatest players in the world. So why do I feel like Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal as he watches Death lollop cheerfully over the fields, scythe and chessboard in hand?

Perhaps it's because Irish rugby might be better off if no one had ever thought of a Rugby World Cup. Mention the name Eddie O'Sullivan, for example, and what comes to mind is not one of his stirring Triple Crown victories but the 2007 World Cup which seemed less like a sporting event than a prolonged course in national sporting humiliation and torture. It's hardly fair on O'Sullivan but it's just one example of how the collision of Ireland and the World Cup results in disaster.

That year might have been the nadir of our fortunes in the tournament. Then again it might not because there are so many horrendous memories to choose from. It began with a disappointing defeat to Wales in an awful game on a terrible day, May 25, 1987, and the misery has piled on since then, deepening like a coastal shelf.

There was Finlay Calder's cheap hit on Jim Staples in 1991 which cost us victory against Scotland. In 1995, came a 36-12 quarter-final mauling by France and in 1999 a spineless surrender against Australia at Lansdowne Road followed by a defeat to Argentina which meant we didn't even make the quarter-finals. When we did reach the quarter-finals in 2003, we were humiliated by France, the 43-21 scoreline flattering us severely as the French basically stopped playing around the 50th minute and allowed us to score three meaningless tries.

And then 2007. Namibia. Georgia. A tournament where Ireland were so bad I can remember some optimistic commentators trying to find encouragement in the fact that we'd scored two tries while being whaled 30-15 by Argentina. Is it any wonder I feel slightly queasy when confronted by television ads where Lawrence Dallaglio and a cabal of manly chariot-swinging sidekicks extol the virtues of the coming tournament.

Lucky English who can think of the World Cup without suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even the Welsh and Scottish have managed to make the semi-finals. But our only great memory is of Gordon Hamilton galloping over the line at Lansdowne 20 years ago. And it says everything about the Irish history in this cursed competition that Hamilton's try gave the nation approximately two minutes of joy before Michael Lynagh popped up to put the kibosh on that.

Quantum mechanics suggests that somewhere there is a happy alternate universe with no rugby World Cup. One where Eddie O'Sullivan retired with the respect and admiration which was his due. And one where we are now basking in the glories of that Six Nations demolition of England, Leinster's Heineken Cup win and Munster's Magners League triumph and looking forward to further heroics.

Instead, national morale has plummeted to the extent that it's almost as if those victories never happened. It now seems that the World Cup jinx even extends to warm-up games. Declan Kidney and Brian O'Driscoll appear bemused by what they regard as an excessive reaction to friendly losses but our flounderings against France and England in the Aviva have brought all the other horrors flooding back. Those defeats are like the code words in a spy movie which trigger a sleeper agent into murderous action after years of peace.

So here it comes again. The unique magic of the Rugby World Cup. I can hardly wait.

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