Wednesday 13 December 2017

Wallabies deliver reality check

Defeat shows that we're not much cop right now, writes Eamonn Sweeney

Quade Cooper
Quade Cooper

Eamonn Sweeney

Hmmm. Maybe it wasn't all Declan Kidney's fault. There seemed to be some puzzlement in the aftermath of this humiliating trouncing by Australia as to what exactly had gone wrong with Ireland. Ireland looked like the kind of team who'd get beaten by not just Scotland but Italy in the Six Nations Championship or the kind of team who'd only win three games in two Six Nations seasons.

The problem is that this is exactly the kind of team they are.

They went into their first proper test under Joe Schmidt's management on the back of the worst consecutive seasons in the Six Nations in over a decade, the worst in fact since the pre-Gatland dark days when Ireland were everyone's whipping boys.

Yet it was suggested in all seriousness that they should start as favourites against Australia. Why? It was even suggested afterwards that Ireland might have been suffering from 'complacency.' Again, why? If there is any international rugby team with no grounds for complacency it's the present Irish team.

Yet that reading is perhaps not an entirely incorrect one. Because the myth of Ireland as a world-class team has miraculously survived the precipitous decline of the past two seasons. It is apparently impervious to results. The team are judged not by their miserable on-field performances but by the Platonic ideal of a display which is apparently locked somewhere deep within them.

It's as though to measure the team by results or form is in some way blasphemous, as though the entire project depends on a refusal to admit that the Irish rugby team is in the same kind of recession as the economy. So this latest fiasco, and next week's defeat by the All Blacks, will undoubtedly be waved away on the grounds that Ireland are building for the future.

And if, as seems likely given the current form of Wales and the England team which beat the Australian side we made look like the heirs to Campese, Lynagh and Eales quite comfortably, the Six Nations proves to be a wash-out, we'll be back to suggesting that everything is being sacrificed to the pursuit of glory at World Cup 2015. Like some science fiction city, the Irish team exists in a perpetual future where the present doesn't matter. The failure to give world-class performances doesn't matter somehow. The team have been declared world-class and will retain the title like some impoverished nobleman whose lands and castle were long ago sold to pay the bills.

What made this defeat all the more galling was that even the Irish players who are normally immune to the prevailing lassitude found themselves infected by it on this occasion. Sean O'Brien knocked on twice in good positions, Paul O'Connell failed to secure a lineout near the Aussie line, even Rob Kearney spilled a high ball and handed three points to the Aussies. Mike Ross had as bad a day as he's ever had in the scrum, being tormented by James Slipper, and Brian O'Driscoll did nothing to suggest that his omission from the third Test of the Lions series was the greatest injustice in the history of world sport.

That one Australian try came about because Ireland, who had been predicted to make a mockery of the laughably weak Australian front row, were wheeled at a five-yard scrum and lost the put-in, and another happened after Ireland, predicted to dominate at setpieces, had crumbled in the face of a rolling maul, summed up just how misguided pre-match optimism was. Australia destroyed us where we seemed to be strong.

They also destroyed us where we are notably weak. With ball in hand Ireland looked like what we have been this year, the most creatively impoverished team in a Six Nations series which produced a record low number of tries. Australia, inventive, measured and always dangerous, looked not just to be playing in another gear but to be playing a different sport altogether.

Marauding hooker Stephen Moore looked like a Keith Wood tribute act, Israel Folau put the stamp of class on everything he did, though thankfully he never fully cut loose, while Mike Hooper and Scott Fardy dominated at the breakdown and in everything else they did in the back row. Quade Cooper did as he pleased, waltzing through non-existent tackles for the third try as Nick Cummins had for the first.

The temptation will be there to write this off as 'one of those days.' But the problem for Ireland is that to paraphrase a famous Mancunian bard: "Every day is one of those days. Every day is cloudy and grey." And there will be more of those days until Joe Schmidt and his players realise that their journey of a thousand miles must begin with the single step of realising that right now we're not much cop.

Do that and we might have some hope. Otherwise, there's always the 2019 World Cup in Japan. No point in obsessing about the short-term, after all.

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