Saturday 15 December 2018

Alan Quinlan: Iconic trio keep class of 2009 in front of 2018 vintage - for now

Comparing teams is never easy but the immortalised O'Gara, O'Connell and O'Driscoll, and a world-class combination in the back-row, sees Kidney's charges just shade it on points

Brian O’Driscoll and the Grand Slam-winning team of 2009. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O’Driscoll and the Grand Slam-winning team of 2009. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Comparing teams from different times is always a complex assignment, and one thing is obvious when you try to hang the current crop alongside the 2009 brigade - the game has moved on so much over the past nine years.

The demands on the players have grown considerably, the pressures from the outside are even greater - there is much more focus on individual performances and social media affords everyone a channel for criticism, and occasionally praise.

The 2009 side will always be particularly special to me. On a personal level, being a part of the training squad and being the 23rd man for a number of the games - even the size of the match-day squad was different then - I experienced up close how talented that group really was.

It was a team full of winners; predominantly made up of Munster men who had just won their second Heineken Cup and Leinster players who only months later would sit on the throne of Europe for the first time.

Having reached Grand Slam perfection in March 2009, 14 of the starting 15 would then be picked for the Lions tour of South Africa, with Marcus Horan being the exception, while Tomás O'Leary's hopes of travelling were ultimately dashed by a terrible ankle injury.

On the bench, Geordan Murphy was a 2005 tourist too while Rory Best would go on to wear the red jersey in 2013 and 2017.

Today's starting line-up boasts 10 Lions, plus Jack McGrath on the bench, and while the rest of the team may eventually add that honour to their scrapbooks, for now I feel the 2009 edition, particularly with the iconic trio of Paul O'Connell, Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara to the fore, just about shades it.

However, depending on how things pan out this afternoon and in years to come I may have to reassess my judgement.

Strengths

The 2009 side was brimming with experience and big-game players in crucial parts of the field.

While there was an excellent coaching set-up in 2009, Declan Kidney allowed the players to build a culture, and he recognised that with players like Paul, Drico and ROG involved, he didn't need to push things too hard, he mostly needed to steer us in the right direction.

For those of us outside the match-day 22 in 2009, there were no opportunities to break into the side. There were no injuries, and when a team is winning it's very difficult to knock on the coach's door and argue your case for inclusion.

My cause certainly wasn't helped by the world-class back-row that Ireland had at the time: the explosive carrying of Stephen Ferris and David Wallace being the perfect foil for Jamie Heaslip to demonstrate his intelligence on the ball. Peter O'Mahony, Dan Leavy and CJ Stander are a superb combination but I think the 2009 back-row trio remain out in front.

The level of intensity in training in 2009 was eye-opening. I had been involved with Irish squads since 1997 and across those 12 years that was the best international squad I was involved with.

I had a feeling something special was going to happen, and due to the obvious talent, collective strength of will, and abundance of inspirational characters constantly driving things on, the class of 2009 secured their spot in Irish rugby history.

Weaknesses

It's not easy to find flaws in a Grand Slam-winning team. Human nature ensures that errors will be made and there is always room for improvement, but when a team reaches the pinnacle sometimes you just have to stand back and applaud.

Comparing today's side with the 2009 team, there are a couple of boxes that Kidney's charges did not tick with the same ease of the current crop, although some of that is down to the evolution of the game in the intervening years.

The introduction of the four-try bonus point has been a success in terms of overall try-scoring in the Six Nations, and, consequently, it makes Ireland's tally of 12 five-pointers in five 2009 games look meagre compared to the 17 scored in the opening four games of the 2018 campaign.

However, at the same time, we must not forget that the 2009 side only conceded three tries in their five games - two against France and one against England - while Joe Schmidt's charges have shipped eight in four outings, before they tackle their trickiest assignment of the tournament.

The 2009 side had some excellent players in reserve but in terms of impact off the bench they probably don't match the current set-up. The depth that has been built in recent years is unprecedented in Irish rugby; there are queues of quality forming all over the park, another advantage that the 2018 contingent certainly have.

Leaders

O'Connell, O'Driscoll and O'Gara have been immortalised in Irish rugby history which has varnished their legacies and put them on a pedestal alongside the greats to play the game from this island.

While the likes of Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray and Rory Best may go on to emulate and even surpass the aforementioned trio, for now I think the 2009 decision-makers remain ahead.

Paul put the fear of God into everyone in the pack. Even if you were just a part of the training group you made sure you knew every lineout move in case you needed to slot in, the wrath that would follow a set-piece error didn't bear thinking about.

In Paul, Drico and ROG we had three rugby geniuses who rarely made a wrong decision, and who had no problem challenging the coaches if they felt it was necessary.

Mental approach

Mental preparation was more simplistic nine years ago but, having said that, there was a major breakthrough with the 2009 team in terms of cohesion and confidence.

The meeting in Enfield around Christmas 2008, where Rob Kearney famously called out the Munster players, ultimately proved to be a hugely important bonding experience and helped focus the minds on what lay ahead of us.

Declan identified that there was an innate ability in that group to get over the line and with a few small improvements something special could be achieved.

Enda McNulty was involved with Leinster and Gerry Hussey was with the international side, so sports psychology was starting to command more attention in 2009, but when you consider how prevalent it is today, with Keith Earls working with Keith Barry for example, it was only in its infancy.

The current team are probably prepared better mentally, which is one of the reasons why so many of the younger players don't require much of a bedding-in period on the international stage - they are better equipped to deal with the pressure, very little seems to faze them.

X-factor

Both teams had no shortage of X-factor players, although the current crop may just shade it in terms of numbers, particularly up front, which is partly down to the fact that every player must be comfortable on the ball in the modern game.

You expect your wingers and half-backs to be able to produce moments of magic, and these two great Irish teams probably cancel each other out in those areas of the field, but when you consider the ball skills of players like Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson, combining that size with such flair would have been a rarity only 10 years ago.

Furlong can stand guys up, step, and pass the ball as well as a half-back; his skill-set is remarkable.

Add in the flair of Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour off the bench and 2018 wins this round, but 2009 just about edge the contest on points - for now.

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