No need to panic over one bad result
There's a certain manic depressive tone to the coverage of Ireland's Rugby World Cup campaign. "We're world-class, Joe Schmidt is the greatest, we can win the World Cup," has changed overnight to, "we're useless, our Six Nations victories are worthless, we do everything the wrong way." It's some transformation to be wrought by the result of just one match.
That the quarter-final against Argentina was a World Cup fiasco in the classic Irish manner can hardly be denied. But it hardly follows that the defeat gravely tarnishes the team's recent achievements. Anyone with any bit of nous was aware before the tournament started that the southern hemisphere is, as it has almost always been, well ahead of the northern hemisphere in rugby terms.
The semi-final line-up is eye-catching but hardly represents some seismic shift. After all, it took a refereeing decision to deny Scotland a famous victory over Australia. Indeed, both Wales and Scotland can be happy with their campaigns and I suspect neither team will spend the winter moaning about the decline of rugby in this part of the world.
England's failure was the result of both a lopsided draw and a failure to cope with the weight of public expectation. France, who have often been the saviours of northern pride in this tournament, merely confirmed the evidence of the last three Six Nations championships where they have won six out of 15 games.
As for Ireland, had some psychic revealed before the tournament that they would face a quarter-final against Argentina bereft of O'Connell, Sexton, O'Mahony and O'Brien, few pundits would have predicted a happy ending. The toll didn't stop there, the under-rated Jared Payne was a loss as was Tommy O'Donnell, an obvious deputy in the back-row who departed the scene after the warm-up game against Wales. Then there were the long-term injuries which meant Cian Healy was only a shadow of himself, Andrew Trimble was left at home and Rhys Ruddock never really got the chance to build on his impressive displays in last winter's international series.
Add in the scheduling which meant that Ireland had to play their biggest group game and their quarter-final within seven days of each other while Argentina were able to rest their first-choice players the week before the game and you were left with a kind of perfect-storm scenario. Ireland's small pool of players makes our national team less able to cope with an injury onslaught than most of our rivals. We rely on a modicum of good fortune in these matters.
Yet this does not mean we were embarked upon a fool's errand from the outset. That one bad result does not turn a good team into a bad one is a hoary old nostrum, but no less true for that. And gloomy declarations that the Six Nations is now meaningless are just so much nonsense. A win over Wales at the Aviva on February 7 will quickly see the old ardour rekindled.
That's how it should be. All Blacks teams which were clearly the best in the world suffered disastrous defeats at the World Cup to France in both 1999 and 2007. This did not render the games they won beforehand and afterwards meaningless. And I doubt that New Zealand for one minute considered themselves inferior to France. For that matter the England team which won the 2003 World Cup final contained plenty of survivors from sides not just humiliated by New Zealand at the 1995 tournament and South Africa in 1999, but also ambushed in the Six Nations by Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the interim.
It's good to learn lessons from defeat but it's pointless to regard one poor performance with extenuating circumstances attached as representing some kind of existential threat.
By the time the Six Nations comes back most of last week's prophets of gloom will be saying the same thing. I just thought I'd tell you now.
Sunday Indo Sport