Tuesday 24 October 2017

Dream big and don't make plans for day of final

Iain Henderson’s emergence as a major contributor was a memory to take from the game
Iain Henderson’s emergence as a major contributor was a memory to take from the game

Eamonn Sweeney

And they're off. Ireland-Canada might have been a match with all the competitive potential of a hurling championship tie between Kilkenny and Donegal - the Canadians, let's face it, have as much chance of beating us at rugby as we have of beating them at ice hockey - but Ireland gave as good a performance as could have been expected.

While the all-round efficiency was par for the course, the extra bit of verve was a nice little bonus. And there were some decent memories to take from a match which in its entirety will be forgotten soon enough; Johnny Sexton's surprising burst of pace for a fine individual try, Keith Earls' electrifying break to set up Rob Kearney for his first international five-pointer in yonks, the continued development of Iain Henderson as a major contributor, a pleasing reminder of the threat carried by Ian Madigan.

Larger hurdles lie ahead but this was reassuring stuff. After all, eight years ago it was the lassitude in the opener against Namibia which set the scene for the horrors to come. This looks like a different Ireland.

There is a day in our minds. It is October 31, 2015 and right now there is a possibility that this may be the biggest day in the history of Irish sport, the day when we play a World Cup final against the All Blacks. This might be a fantasy but it is not an outlandish one because it is fair to say that there is a greater chance of this Irish team reaching a World Cup final than has ever been the case before. Should we beat a French team we have mastered in our last two meetings and not lost to since 2011, we should be facing a quarter-final against an Argentinian side who have lost their last five meetings against Ireland.

If the bookies are correct and England top their group ahead of Australia it is the old enemy Ireland would face in the semi-final, giving a route to the final which excludes the big three of the Southern Hemisphere. It would be the local derby to end all local derbies with all the unpredictability that entails between two evenly matched sides. Irish people have a tendency to dream big but these rugby dreams have a considerable basis in reality.

That's because the defining quality of Ireland under Joe Schmidt has been an ability to get the job done and extract the maximum possible return from the abilities of the team. Eddie O'Sullivan's mid-noughties teams were considerably more exciting and Declan Kidney's Grand Slam team looks at this distance more powerful on paper. Yet the memory of how Ireland have twice squeaked through to Six Nations titles right at the death inspires belief. There was a remorselessness about those campaigns which brought no team to mind as much as Clive Woodward's English World Cup-winning team of 2003.

Then again, part of our fascination with this tournament is the way it has shown us just how far astray the best laid plans of alickadoos and men can go. The 2007 campaign may well have been the biggest let-down in national sporting history, a kind of rugby version of the Donner Party expedition which left us mumbling, "The horror, the horror," like Brando at the end of Apocalypse Now. Future generations will refuse to believe that a team with so much talent on board played so badly that by the end we were reduced to taking consolation in the fact that they'd scored a couple of tries in a heavy defeat by Argentina.

Four years ago the victory over Australia gave rise to the kind of dreams currently invading the collective national sporting consciousness before Wales rudely returned Ireland to reality and reminded us just what a cursed tournament this has been for the men in green. That Welsh team went on to almost make the final. France did make the final as they had done on two previous occasions. England have won the bloody thing. Even Scotland have been in a semi, as have Argentina.

Ireland are undoubtedly the great RWC underachievers. For the past decade and a half Irish rugby has got most things right at international and provincial level but the World Cup has retained the ability to reduce us to the state of chaos which prevailed back in the '90s. Though it's ironic that the great moment of those hungry years came in 1991. How often during our times in the Five Nations basement did that Gordon Hamilton try against Australia get replayed on our screens? Such were Irish rugby's meagre consolations then, memories of leads briefly held during gallant defeats.

Things are different now. There is perhaps a sense that after three Six Nations triumphs in seven years things are coming to a head for Irish rugby and that, a moment of culmination may be at hand, not least because it is surely impossible to keep underperforming on this biggest of stages forever. So, October 31. Don't make any plans you can't get out of that day. Just in case.

Wouldn't it be wonderful? But let's be realistic and consider the slightly stronger claims possessed by our rivals. Actually let's not be. Right now everything is possible. Let's continue thinking of that day.

October 31. The date that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, that the Battle of Britain ended with a victory for the underdogs. See what can happen when you dream big?

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