Comment: We need to treat success and failure with more balance
It was hardly an ideal way in which to begin a new century of sporting endeavour. I'm thinking of Ireland's opening match in the Six Nations Championship of 2000, when they were slaughtered 50-18 by England at Twickenham.
Though sport's cyclical nature told us of previous journeys down the same painful road, this one seemed somehow different. And I can still recall the rawness of those reactions, when an international campaign which promised much delivered such crushing disappointment.
All of which led to unusually deep soul-searching, with intense scrutiny focused on national coach Warren Gatland. Most disturbing of all, however, was the decidedly bleak conclusion that the arrival of the professional era had created an unbridgeable gulf, in class and resources, with the old enemy.
That was February 5. Only six weeks later on the notoriously hostile terrain of Stade de France, a promising young Dubliner by the name of Brian O'Driscoll gained instant star status by scoring three glorious tries in a 27-25 win over France. And even after a loss in the closing match against Wales, Ireland still managed to share second place behind England in the final points table.
The unpredictable seems to be an inescapable part of Irish international sport, especially in rugby. Yet all we need is a few decent autumn results and we're already planning celebrations for the next Grand Slam triumph. That opening match of 2000 was especially interesting, however, for the reactions it provoked among noted sporting leaders of the time.
One of them was Seán Boylan, who played rugby for seven years as a schoolboy at Belvedere College and was honoured as the country's Manager of the Year for 1999, having led Meath to another All-Ireland Gaelic football triumph. His first, optimistic, assertion was: "I believe that an imbalance in skills can be bridged.
"In fact, I have found over the years, both as a player myself and looking after other players, that talent is only 10 per cent of the package.
"When I began coaching, I would smile to myself at the number of players who would come up to me and start talking about tactics. What they didn't realise was that if you don't get the basics right, all the theory in the world is going to be no use to you under pressure.
"It's like me doing a course in karate in which I might reach white belt, yellow belt, brown belt or even black-belt standard. Then I happen to walk into a row with a street-fighter. Now if I decide to put my boot on his chin and I don't get him the first time, I won't get a second chance, even with all my karate expertise. He'll have me on the ground, buried. That's why it's so important that the content of squad sessions should be kept as close as possible to what goes on in the game."
Boylan concluded: "I would love to see the Irish lads doing far more talking on the field. You must have communication, especially when things are going really badly against you. You draw round the wagons and you grit your teeth and you become all the more determined to change the flow of the game. It mightn't be pretty, but you do what circumstances demand."
At a time when Martin O'Neill was achieving remarkable things with limited resources as manager of Leicester City in the Premier League, I then turned to Jack Charlton, the erstwhile Ireland soccer boss. Though he watched international rugby, Charlton admitted to being somewhat baffled by the game.
Which, of course, didn't preclude him from having forthright views on how it should be played. "I don't understand rugby," he said. "For instance, I can't understand how the referee can decide which team to award a penalty to, after there has been a pile of people on the floor kicking each other.
"But things are basically the same for all field sports. And what I do know is that Ireland can't play the game the way England play the game or the way France play the game, because you're not a big enough country and you don't have enough players with sufficient quality to do it. So you've got to do something different to put them off balance. And if you're prepared to stick with it, it can be done."
Interestingly, Charlton then suggested: "Ireland might decide to play Garryowens into a space at the back, or they might decide to run with the ball. Who knows? The fact is that the coach has got to come up with an answer, however hard it is to find. Then you've got to match the players to the answer. These will be players who can do it the way you want it done."
That was how things were at this time 17 years ago. And one imagines that in Joe Schmidt, Ireland have a coach of whom Boylan and Charlton would approve. All that seems to be missing now is a touch of realism from the general public.
Which would allow us simply to enjoy the good times when they happen and treat Kipling's great imposters, success and failure, with a finer sense of balance.
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