Thursday 22 February 2018

Comment: Right now, Ireland are the Fine Gael of rugby

Control disappears from Ireland's game in face of English onslaught

Killer blow: Jonathan Sexton of Ireland and Owen Farrell of England shake hands following the final whistle Photo: Michael Steele/Getty
Killer blow: Jonathan Sexton of Ireland and Owen Farrell of England shake hands following the final whistle Photo: Michael Steele/Getty

Eamonn Sweeney

Welcome to the great Irish retro weekend. At home, in a stirring tribute to the spirit of 1977, an unpopular coalition government got slaughtered by an electorate fed up with not alone having austerity inflicted upon them but being told they should be grateful for it.

And abroad our rugby team produced an uncanny simulacrum of a performance from the days when we didn't win very much but were always commended for our fighting spirit. It was a bit like the defeat by France in 1977 or by Wales in 1978 or by England in 1991. All of which those with long memories will recall were notable for the gutsy nature of the Irish display.

However, the aforementioned gutsiness was sadly only the second most important thing about those matches. It was trumped by the result.

And the sad truth is that for all the courage and resolution on show the record books will show one point from three matches and 11 points between the teams in Twickenham.

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The odd thing is that the victories of the last two seasons were sometimes derided for their bloodless and clinical nature. This match, on the other hand, was full of stirring moments, Johnny Sexton's break to almost put Robbie Henshaw in for a try, Ultan Dillane's impersonation of a reincarnated Moss Keane, a titanic effort in the loose by Jack McGrath, a powerhouse display at the breakdown by CJ Stander, but what was missing was the kind of calm efficiency which wins games. Witness what happened in the 48th minute.

With Conor Murray's try having given Ireland a 10-6 lead over an England team still down to 14 men as they waited for James Haskell to return from the sin bin, a lovely run and chip by Stuart McCloskey gave Ireland a lineout deep in England territory.

With the home team clearly rattled, the following things happened in quick succession: we botched the line-out, Keith Earls spilled an up and under and Devin Toner committed a foolish foul which allowed Owen Farrell to slot a morale-boosting penalty for the home side. In the following 12 minutes they scored two tries which effectively finished the game as a contest.

There was still enough time for a roaring Irish rally which once more brought back memories of the days when the side who'd just beaten us would say that you never get anything easy from the Irish.

All very nice if you're in the mood for a pat on the head. The problem is that in recent years we've become used to something a bit more tangible in terms of success. As Fine Gael found out yesterday, people don't tend to get much satisfaction from the slogan, "All things considered, it could be a lot worse like."

Robbie Henshaw is tackled short of the try line by Jack Nowell in Twickenham yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Robbie Henshaw is tackled short of the try line by Jack Nowell in Twickenham yesterday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

What has disappeared from our game is a sense of control. Lineouts inside the English 22 were lost, handling mistakes were made and even when things went well they had an off-the-cuff, improvisatory feel about them.

In the words of the French general, "C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la guerre". The bravery in our performance was that of an inferior team putting it up to a superior one.

Had Ireland not tackled like demons we could have been 20 points down at half-time. Bar those few minutes after the Murray try, it always seemed to be a question of keeping the opposition at bay rather than imposing our game on them.

Those who've lamented a lack of adventure in the team can have little to complain about after this one. At times some of our attempts to run the ball from the 22 suggested that the players were under the impression they were playing for the Barbarians. But the very novelty of the attempts militated against the possibility of them succeeding.

Our back-line looked like men trying to communicate in a foreign language they hadn't come near to mastering.

Right now, Ireland are the Fine Gael of rugby. Our years at the top have come to an end and the rulers of old, England and Wales, have rejuvenated themselves while we look jaded.

The balance of power has changed and the glory days will not be coming back in the near future. The bright spots in this performance are our equivalent of Fine Gael's performances in Dún Laoghaire and Limerick County, momentarily cheering but not really lightening the gloom of the overall picture. For Micheál Martin read Mike Brown. Ireland kicked the ball down the England fullback's throat with the same depressing regularity that Enda Kenny presented his opposite number with open goals in their TV debates.

Fine Gael, of course, may stay in power. Ireland won't. Ask for a recount in a rugby match and the score remains the same.

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