Neil Francis: 'Ireland must keep improving in this Six Nations and put a stop to a listless and lethargic start'
In one of the 1984 USA presidential election debates between the incumbent Ronald Reagan and his democratic rival Walter Mondale, the tricky subject of age came into the equation. Reagan, one of the most popular American presidents of all time, had seen his huge lead in the polls gradually whittle away to high single figures. Aged 73, his performances had seemed a little fuzzy and uncertain and the voting population needed to know whether he was still be up to the job.
The moderator, Jack Truit, asked out loud what everybody had been thinking: "Mr Reagan, you are already the oldest president in history; President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?"
Reagan fixed his gaze and delivered a match-ending zinger: "Not at all Mr Truit and I want you to know that I will also not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
The auditorium erupted into laughter. Mondale cracked up and had to prevent himself from applauding his opponent's brilliant riposte.
The game was over, there and then. Reagan won in a landslide.
The chances of Reagan's line being a moment of pure spontaneity are the same as Ireland's chances of losing today in Rome - but the older guy and his team knew that his age would be an issue. He remembered his lines and didn't fluff them in his delivery.
There is no substitute for experience in the sporting sphere. Every player who has played at the highest level will tell you that if you knew the stuff you knew at the end of your career when you were younger, you would be 'The Man'. Great players are commonly seen as those who are 'wise before their years'.
Italy present themselves for examination today at the Stadio Olimpico. As it has been in the Joe Schmidt era, the battle will not be with a rugged but lamentably limited blue-shirted team, but with a situation that has infected Ireland over the last four seasons. Ireland now need their experience - and experienced players - to vaccinate themselves from this type of thing happening in the big one in October.
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I am convinced that if Ireland had brought their 'A' game to the Aviva against England and played as well as England did, they would have won. Ireland were many leagues off where they needed to be and we all put it down to being 'one of those' and that England wanted it more.
Let us remind ourselves that Ireland performed poorly three weeks ago. They did so previously in the first fixture in Paris last season, just winning 13-15. The previous season they sleepwalked to Murrayfield and got hijacked 27-22. The season before that they meandered into a 16-16 draw in the first match of the season and also suffered an off-day against the same opposition in Cardiff the season before that. Surely these unsatisfactory starts cannot have escaped their and their opponents' notice.
A Grand Slam is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve and despite our recent pre-eminence, Ireland still struggle when they have to play tournament rugby. We seem to be far better geared to winning November internationals.
I have a feeling that Ireland will win all their remaining matches, getting better and better, and saving their best performance for Wales in Cardiff which will probably garner second place for Joe Schmidt's team. Nobody can say that the score against Italy and the performance are not important because they are - the same goes for the French and Welsh games that are coming.
The season was lost in the first game and it is important to regather and salvage something. But it all ends in the middle of March, so what relevance does it have?
Tomorrow, an eagerly awaited Leinster Schools quarter-final will be played out between Blackrock College and St Michael's College. That match was delayed by an outbreak of mumps and the mid-term break. People have asked, 'What's the form here', and I have answered, 'there is none.' In the space of over three weeks a side that was on fire could have lost its spark and a side that was struggling could suddenly find it.
We expect that Ireland will recover themselves and that they will have a long nervy break to the pre-World Cup warm-up games and then on to the big show. Ireland in the interim could conceivably catch fire and go cold a couple of times before the main event.
Experience teaches only the teachable. We have a vintage core of experienced players - Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and Rob Kearney - the most decorated and experienced players in Irish rugby history. All these players are in or just past their prime age but carry the same age profile as the 2003 England side that won the World Cup. That win was based wholly on the experience of their leadership group who had seen it and done it all before. They were able to identify problems and iron them out before they became issues. Not even the All Blacks have the same number of caps or as experienced a spine in their team as Ireland.
It is now incumbent upon them to finish off their Six Nations Championship with professional approach and improved performance but it is more important that they put a stop to a listless and lethargic start to the Championship.
Ireland play Scotland again on Sunday, September 22 in Yokohama. It is, as we have observed, a dangerous time for Ireland. Scotland were poor in Murrayfield despite fancying themselves and Ireland pretty much had their number all game long without ever displaying any attacking verve on a concerted basis. The Scots have been spending many sleepless nights trying to come up with a plan to unseat us. Their number one trump card at this moment in time is to hope Ireland turn up in their usual pre-tournament torpor and under-perform.
There are many things that can happen between the end of the Six Nations and September. Already the astonishing number of in excess of 31 players who started in the first game of the Championship are injured prior to the commencement of the third round. Ireland will lose four or five of their starters and we hope that none of the core group - our leaders and experienced players - will be among them.
South Africa play New Zealand the day before. You can be damn sure that New Zealand will be primed to win that game and will perform to the level that is expected of them.
A continued recovery of sorts starts today but from now on the focus for Ireland is to harvest their experience and not fluff their lines on the first day of the big show.
Sunday Indo Sport