Sunday 18 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Third title in a row would be Ireland's greatest rugby achievement

The sight of Paul O’Connell being stretchered off in pain against France now seems like an augury of everything that was to go wrong subsequently Photo: Sportsfile
The sight of Paul O’Connell being stretchered off in pain against France now seems like an augury of everything that was to go wrong subsequently Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

There are games on which history seems to turn, games which mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. The 2006 All-Ireland hurling final is a prime example. Cork entered the match seeking three in a row and with many people acclaiming them as the greatest team of all time, one which had brought the game to a new level of tactical sophistication and competitive ferocity. Their opponents Kilkenny, on the other hand, were coming off an embarrassing defeat against Galway in the previous year's semi and an unconvincing championship campaign that year.

Yet it was the Cats who prevailed to set in train an era of unparalleled dominance which has left no argument about who exactly is the greatest of them all. Would it happened had they failed in the 2006 final? Perhaps not. Brian Cody might not have survived a third consecutive season without an All-Ireland for one thing. And it's also possible to make a strong case that the disastrous decade which has followed for Cork hurling stemmed from that one match.

The 1976 Munster football final when Kerry eked out a controversial win over Cork is another case in point. Cork, champions in 1973 and 1974, were seeking to regain control but narrowly failed to do so. That failure cleared the way for Kerry to become the greatest football team of all-time and also saw Cork's gifted dual players turn their energies towards hurling and win the next three All-Ireland titles.

What about the match in June 1995 between Ireland and Liechtenstein? Coming off the back of a tremendous home victory over Portugal, Ireland were favourites to top the group and qualify for the European Championship finals. But they were never the same again after somehow failing to break down the tax haven part-timers. Eight days later, they lost to Austria and Jack Charlton's reign began to unravel.

These were all matches whose repercussions carried on long after the final whistle. The question is whether the Irish rugby team's World Cup quarter-final tie against Argentina back in October belongs with them. Because right now it seems that it does.

The team, after all, went into the match in Cardiff surfing an unprecedented tsunami of public affection, admiration and adulation. They had the momentum of not just two consecutive Six Nations titles but an heroic victory over France seven days earlier behind them.

And then the whole thing went tits up. The nightmarish start which saw the Pumas poach a 17-0 lead after 13 minutes, and left Irish fans with the feeling that this was all a bit unfair, was bad enough. But the real crushing humiliation came after Ireland had pulled to within three points entering the final quarter only to see the outsiders stick another 20 unanswered points on them.

The defeat didn't just turn the 2015 World Cup campaign overnight into Irish rugby's version of Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow. It also seemed to retrospectively tarnish the pair of Six Nations triumphs. This wasn't just in the eyes of the native gloaters who thought Irish rugby had gotten too big for its boots and had been devoutly wishing for such a consummation. Dedicated fans also felt it as a shattering blow which raised the possibility that everything they knew about Irish rugby might be wrong.

What's made it worse is that there have been no reasons to be cheerful since then.

Instead, layer upon layer of misery has been piled on. There's been a European Cup campaign of unparalleled ineptitude, its highlights including double-figure flakings for Leinster at the hands of Wasps (twice) and Toulon, Munster against Leicester (twice) and Stade Francais and Ulster against Saracens (twice), the first complete failure to qualify for the knockout stages since the competition started to be taken seriously, Munster fans turning on their own players and Leinster concluding proceedings with perhaps the worst performance ever given by an Irish province abroad.

The loss of Paul O'Connell is all the harder to bear because the sight of him being stretchered off in pain against France now seems like an augury of everything that was to go wrong subsequently. Peter O'Mahony, his heir apparent as pack hard man, is out for the season and Iain Henderson, the great find of the World Cup, will miss the Six Nations.

Johnny Sexton's career is beginning to resemble a montage from some future documentary about the long-term effects of concussion. Cian Healy and Mike Ross will miss the start of the Six Nations, Tommy Bowe will miss all of it. A team which seemed this time last year to have the world at its feet now seems threadbare and shopworn in the public imagination.

The general atmosphere would do that great rugby fan Samuel Beckett proud. Yet there is much to be excited about as we head into the Six Nations. Ireland are, after all, going for a third title in a row. Not only is that something this country has never previously achieved, it has never been achieved by anyone. The great English team which won the World Cup in 2003 couldn't do it and neither could the legendary Welsh team of Edwards, Bennett, JPR and the Pontypool front-row. France shared the Five Nations title in 1960 and won it in 1961 and 1962 and Wales shared it in 1964 and won in 1965 and 1966 but that's as close as anyone got to it. Even in the days when there were just four nations involved, it didn't happen.

That's why an Irish Six Nations triumph in 2016 would top not just anything in our history, but anything in European rugby history. And while it might be difficult, there's no denying that it's achievable. There's very little between England, who have to go to Cardiff, Wales, who have to come to Dublin, and Ireland, who have a trip to Twickenham. France, who have both England and Ireland at home, are in with a shout though their form in recent seasons, and a World Cup jaunt so shambolic it made everyone else's look good by comparison, makes you wonder if this particular sleeping giant will ever wake.

For all the gloom, the fact remains that Ireland retain most of the side which has been good enough to take the previous two titles. Eleven starters from the side which easily saw off England at the Aviva last year are available for selection. There is a hard experienced core to the team which also contains a number of players (McGrath, Zebo, Ruddock, O'Donnell, Madigan) who haven't yet made a major impact on the Six Nations but have the ability to do so, as well as some genuinely exciting new boys (Stander, Van der Flier, McCloskey). Robbie Henshaw is still just 22 while Conor Murray, amazingly, is just 26. Seán O'Brien has a couple of years to go before he hits 30. There should be plenty left in this team.

A Six Nations victory would be historic but it's also to a certain degree imperative. It might sound a little counter-intuitive to suggest that a team which has won two Championships in a row has a lot left to prove, but another title is needed to recapture the affection of the sporting public. Sounds cruel but there you are. The cynics may say that the World Cup proves the Six Nations means very little but at the very least a victory proves a team is in the top five, and probably four, in the world. This is hardly to be sniffed at, not least in a country which went wild with joy and praise when the soccer team made the last 24 in Europe.

Before the quarter-final against Argentina, Joe Schmidt was a by-word for efficiency, integrity and toughness. First with Leinster and then with the national team, he had known nothing but success in this country. He became, to a certain extent, a stick with which to beat less successful managers. Now, for the first time, he is the one being beaten. Not severely but hard enough to hurt.

This will be his toughest season as Ireland manager, but it also has the potential to be his greatest. It is up to him whether the Argentina game comes to be seen as an epochal encounter or just another match.

Sunday Indo Sport

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