Welcome back to real world
The profoundly shattering thing about Ireland's pasting in Paris was the harsh light it shed, not just on the present but also on the past and the future.
It is dispiriting enough to find out that we are miles behind France at present. But the manner of our defeat also put last year's Grand Slam in context. It was not, as we had deluded ourselves, like the 1991 clean sweep which presaged an era of dominance for England. Instead, it was, like Wales's victories in 2005 and 2008, a magnificent example of a small rugby nation extracting the maximum from slender resources. Last year was magnificent but it was not the harbinger of great things to come. That's as good as it gets.
Saturday's game put a conclusive kibosh on the crazy dream of Ireland overhauling the Southern Hemisphere's big three and winning next year's World Cup. We could never in a million years do to France what they did to us last weekend. There is a gear available to the French and the All Blacks, to the Springboks and the Wallabies, which Ireland don't possess. We simply cannot play that kind of rugby against the best opposition.
As we fought, courageously and successfully, in the second half to prevent France from reaching the half-century of points their performance deserved, all that talk about Ireland using this year's championship to perfect the more expansive sort of rugby apparently required for a World Cup challenge rang very hollow indeed.
We do not have the luxury of using the Six Nations as a preparatory tournament for the bigger challenges ahead. The Six Nations itself, and keeping ahead of England and Wales, is enough of a challenge for us to be going on with. Should we defeat those two and win another Triple Crown, nobody sensible will worry about whether our style was sufficiently 'expansive'.
Marc Lievremont can chop and change and think ahead to the World Cup because he has the reassurance of knowing that, on top form, his side can beat anyone. As recently as last June, France were able to go to New Zealand and beat the All Blacks 27-22 and, almost as significantly, lose the second Test against a forewarned home team by a mere 14-10. France can measure themselves against the All Blacks because they've beaten them seven times since 1994. In the same period, the closest Ireland have got to New Zealand was a 15-6 defeat in Dunedin eight years ago. That's the difference between who France are and who Ireland are.
It's a credit to the diligence of the Irish management and players that we would never give a performance like the one France gave when losing 34-10 to England at Twickenham last year. And nobody should sniff at the fact that when South Africa, Australia or France dip below top form we can beat them. It is a huge step forward from the days when they could defeat us while playing at half-pace.
But the sad truth is that when the big four are playing at their very best, Ireland at our very best are no match for them. That is why suggestions that our fourth place in the world rankings under-rated us and that we were serious challengers to the All Blacks and the Springboks were way off the mark. The South African team which beat the Lions and then won the Tri Nations bore little resemblance in performance terms to the one which went through the motions at Croke Park after a tiring season. Instead of complaining that we were behind Australia, we should have been thankful that, for the moment, we were ahead of France.
The fact that we are not a truly world-class team should not be cause for despair. There is still a Triple Crown to be won and, given the French penchant for inconsistency, perhaps even another Six Nations title. Leinster and Munster still look the best bets to take the Heineken Cup, not least because almost all our rugby talent is packed into those two teams. The French, on the other hand, fielded players from seven different clubs in their starting line-up last Saturday.
You could argue that there's nothing wrong with unbridled optimism. But both Warren Gatland and Eddie O'Sullivan, tremendous managers who brought Irish rugby a long way, found themselves undervalued during their tenure and subsequently derided because of the idea that there was no limit to the potential of their players, given proper direction. If there is any manager in Irish sport who has nothing to prove, it is surely Declan Kidney, which is why it was disquieting in the wake of the French defeat to see suggestions that he now has questions to answer. The last thing we need is for another manager to be blackguarded because people can't handle the truth about where the team really stands.
And where we stand is at one remove from the top echelon. We are the rugby equivalent of Aston Villa, Spurs and Everton, very good teams who can only break into the top four if one of the big guns gets things wrong. There is plenty for the supporters of those clubs to be happy about. Suggestions from fans that Messrs O'Neill, Redknapp and Moyes have failed because the clubs are not challenging Chelsea and Manchester United for the title would show not admirable ambition but dangerous delusion. After all, how many Irish players would be coveted by the big four? O'Driscoll, O'Connell and Heaslip definitely, Ferris perhaps and Kearney if his hands recover from the rugby equiv-
alent of the yips. Elsewhere, we have done wonderfully well with the material available. Some of the criticism which rained down on our half-backs last week was unfair. It wasn't Ronan O'Gara who came up with the mad idea that he was the peer of Dan Carter but some of the very pundits who laid a disproportionate amount of blame at his feet. Tomás O'Leary did very well to be selected for the Lions last year but he has a long way to go before he rivals Mike Phillips, let alone Fourie du Preez. John Hayes richly deserves to notch up his century but had he been born in France, with its corps of powerful scrummagers, he mightn't have won any caps at all. And it doesn't take many injuries to make our reserve strength look pretty threadbare.
There has been so much speculation about what this Irish team might do, we've almost forgotten to celebrate what they can do. Forget 2011, forget the All Blacks and forget the Springboks. Right now, all that matters is taking the swing out of next door's chariot next Saturday.