Tuesday 26 March 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Terms and conditions also apply to rugby. Past performance is no guarantee of future success'

Hold The Back Page

Conor Murray (left) celebrates with teammate Keith Earls. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Murray (left) celebrates with teammate Keith Earls. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Ireland's faltering start to the Six Nations has seen the revival of that old chestnut about nothing mattering this year but the World Cup. This did the rounds regularly in the past when things weren't going to plan and back in the dog days of the Declan Kidney reign was pressed into service a full two years before the tournament.

It always smacks slightly of a desire to draw the best inference from an unpromising situation, yet there is plenty of evidence that an unsuccessful campaign before the World Cup is not all that relevant to a team's subsequent performance.

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England preceded their 2003 World Cup victory with a Grand Slam yet they're very much the exception. It's interesting to note that while the All Blacks have won seven of the last nine Rugby Championships, formerly Tri Nations, the two they didn't win came in World Cup years. In 2011 and 2015 Australia won the title but New Zealand came up trumps in the bigger tournament.

The South African team which won the 2007 World Cup had actually finished bottom of the Tri Nations with just one win from four games and the Australian team which won the blue riband event in 1999 also failed to win the southern hemisphere competition.

Six Nations underperformance also doesn't seem to be a major harbinger of doom. The French team which lost the 2011 World Cup final by a point had been beaten by Italy earlier that year while the English side pipped by South Africa had suffered a 30-point thrashing by Ireland in Croke Park. France reached the 1999 final after a Wooden Spoon season in that year's Five Nations.

The reverse can also be true.

The Six Nations winning Irish team of 2015 wilted when the pressure came on against Argentina and the 2007 team which had bagged a national record 17 Six Nations tries only managed a combined four against Georgia, France and Argentina.

That's why Joe Schmidt probably won't worry too much about missing out on a fourth Six Nations title, though you imagine he would like to see Ireland finish with four wins on the trot. A final day visit to Cardiff, where we've lost three of our last four Six Nations matches, will provide a stern test of form before the countdown to Japan enters its final stage.

The performances of key individuals may bother the manager more than results. From this point of view the current travails of Conor Murray are probably the prime concern. This time last year Murray was the best scrumhalf in the world, but he's been a sadly diminished figure since the injury lay-off which saw him miss out on the end-of-season internationals.

It's natural for a player to take some time to recapture his very best form but the worrying thing about Murray's poor performances against England and Scotland was that his old appetite and energy seemed to be lacking. Ben Youngs and Greig Laidlaw both found themselves free to go about their business unmolested by a player whose ability to hound his opposite number is normally one of his defining characteristics.

Murray's kicking touch also seems to have deserted him at present, something which has been a major contributory factor to the chorus of criticism about Ireland's tactics. Executed properly, the box kick can be a torment to the opposition, botched and few things look more pointless. The scrumhalf's imprecision lays the team open to accusations of playing 'caveman rugby'.

You suspect Murray wasn't helped by the fuss made over his injury when all the secrecy created an unnecessary furore. His diatribe about rumour mongering also seemed a foolish step. Why give untrue rumours the oxygen of publicity by ventilating them in the media? Whoever advises the player on dealing with these matters isn't doing a very good job.

The failure to run his try against Scotland in under the posts, despite being urged to do so by Keith Earls, also added to the picture of a player whose head isn't entirely in the game at present. Yet such has been Murray's consistent level of excellence in the past it seems unthinkable he won't bounce back with a couple of big displays before the end of the Six Nations.

No player will be under the microscope to the same extent from here on in.

The Last Word: Poor management the cause of Cork's decline

Cork's humiliating defeat by Clare in Division 2 of the Allianz Football League shows that the county's most pressing problem is how badly its senior team has been managed over the past few years.

All the jargon-laden think-tank documents in the world won't change the fact that the Rebels should not be getting hammered by Clare (the epitome of a well-managed team getting the most out of themselves).

For all the talk of structural deficiencies, Cork have won five of the last seven Munster under 21 titles. Clare have never won one and haven't been in a final since 2002. It would be almost unthinkable for a team from the Banner to beat Cork at underage level.

Tomás Ó Sé's typically intelligent and forthright observations on Cork's decline were notable because, given his involvement with Nemo Rangers, he knows what the feeling is on the ground. They don't go in for 'Cork is only interested in hurling' talk in Nemo. Or down here in West Cork.

* * * * *

The three Bs were standards of ultimate excellence held up by my father when I was a kid in the 1970s. The Beatles were the best band ever, the Barbarians had scored the best try ever against the All Blacks in 1973 and the best save ever was the one made from Pele by Gordon Banks in 1970.

All subsequent bands, tries and saves were compared to those three touchstones and found wanting. It made me a bit frustrated at times but now I think the old boy was probably right. On hearing of Banks' death, few football fans of my generation didn't immediately in their mind's eye see him scoop Pele's header over the bar.

Banks also endeared himself to the Sweeney household when he appeared for St Pat's against the Johnny Giles-managed Shamrock Rovers in 1977. Pat's won 1-0 thanks to a classic Banks save in the final minutes. Even with just one good eye he remained a marvel.

* * * * *

All the fuss over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's achievements at Manchester United have to a certain extent obscured the remarkable few weeks enjoyed by his chief rival for the job, Mauricio Pochettino. After losing to United at Wembley, a Spurs side which then lost their two best players, Harry Kane and Dele Alli to injury, seemed set for decline.

Instead they've bounced back with four league wins on the trot to lie just five points behind Manchester City with a game in hand. And on Wednesday the patched up side gave perhaps the finest Champions League performance of the season when beating runaway Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund 3-0.

Considering that the Argentinian has had to cope with the loss of Spurs' home ground and a lack of money to strengthen his squad, his is probably the Premier League's finest managerial achievement so far this season. Nobody does it better.

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