Tuesday 23 July 2019

Paul O'Connell takes Ireland into a world of hope and expectation where some familiar foes lie in wait

'O’Connell takes Ireland into a world of hope and expectation where some familiar foes lie in wait'
'O’Connell takes Ireland into a world of hope and expectation where some familiar foes lie in wait'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was a hot Sunday night in Bordeaux when Ireland opened their account in the World Cup in September 2007. Namibia were on the menu, and we were dining in Stade Chaban-Delmas, where Munster had stunned European rugby seven years earlier by beating Toulouse.

The IRB - or World Rugby as they are now known - were a bit worried about this fixture, and a few others. Rockfalls tend to blot the landscape, and when you are in the business of presenting a picture of evenness across the terrain, you want a postcard rather than an apocalypse. They feared Ireland would bury the Africans, most of whom were amateurs, under a pile of rubble, and there would be awkward questions asked about the fairness of it all.

In the run-up, the Board had been mindful to provide as much support as possible to the minnows so that they might stay afloat long enough to keep things respectable. The fear, we were told at the time, was that in the final quarter it would be Armageddon.

Certainly that's what the Irish fans expected. The stadium capacity is close on 35,000, and it felt like the locals and Namibians combined could be measured in hundreds. This was the height of the Celtic Tiger. Loads of people had loads of money. A spin to the World Cup? Get out the plastic.

There was a peculiar atmosphere on the concourses around the stadium. We had to circumnavigate pretty much the entire ground to get from the press centre to the press box - this was France - and on every step of the journey there were Irish people on the lash. It wasn't the unique atmosphere that attends Six Nations games in Dublin, rather there was a far more aggressive vibe to it. Drinking in the sun can do a lot to change a personality, but this seemed to fit right in with the mood of a nation. We're here, we're wedged and want to be served. Now.

The hangover the following morning lasted a month, and gave rise to a level of vitriol which surely wouldn't have been the case had we been in the teeth of a recession. The sense of entitlement was overpowering. Social commentary aside, the entire episode was fitting in so far as it added another chapter to the grim story of Ireland and the Rugby World Cup.

Of course we didn't want anything to do with it in the first place. When the tournament was mooted in the mid-1980s, the IRFU were quick out of the blocks to say that it would be an unwelcome burden on the amateur game. It wasn't as if the IRB were mad keen on the idea either, rather they felt they had to act before someone else came up with a plan that wiped their eye.

That scary prospect had presented itself in 1983 when Australian entrepreneur David Lord came close enough to setting up a world rugby circuit that would have hobbled the IRB. "Had there been pay tv at the time rugby would have gone professional with me," he said.

Two tournaments and eight years later there would be circumstances for change, and it happened faster than anybody imagined. Those who had a mind to change ran with it. That didn't include us.

Instead we stuck to being very good at standing still and pretty crap at World Cups. Next weekend is the eighth instalment and if we get to the semi-final it will be for the first time. Even Scotland have managed that. Along the way there have been a few humongous mistakes: taking the players out of competitive club rugby en route to 1987 in the hope of keeping them injury-free (they were leaden-footed); in 1991, allowing a stand-off to develop between the IRFU and the players over signing away their intellectual property rights; in 1995, ignoring the professional advice on how to handle altitude in South Africa and ending up looking like the 1987 version - a mile off the pace.

The consensus on the '07 setback was that Eddie O'Sullivan got the lead-up wrong, which he admits himself. Yet in analysing how we were underplayed going to the show, no one seems to consider the preparation of the Namibians and the Georgians.

Were they at the epicentre of the strength and conditioning world at the time? Namibia had played one Test in the seven weeks leading to the Ireland game - in which they conceded 105 points to South Africa. The Georgians had played one Test in almost three months en route to Bordeaux. So against these outsiders it almost shouldn't have mattered how far Ireland were off the pace with their three lead-up games going to France. Some unfathomable, and as yet unexplained, drain of confidence saw them scrape past teams they should have left standing.

If the IRB were privately delighted at the optics of tier three nations giving some hurry-up to a fairly big hitter from tier one, it didn't herald a shift in the pecking order. There are a bunch of fixtures they will be sweating about this time too. And the Uruguayans are causing most concern.

It's not just that Los Teros (The Lapwings) have been pooled with England, Australia, Wales and Fiji, but the situation has been aggravated by the need of the big three to add maximum points scored to their bonus points won. In South American competition, Uruguay are second only to Argentina. In the context of the World Cup however this is as useful as being runner-up in the local cake sale when next you're competing in Masterchef.

Since the turn of the century Uruguay have been involved in the Pan American Championship, the Inter Continental Cup, the IRB Nations Cup and the Tbilisi Cup. So it's not as if World Rugby don't run dances in small towns, it's just that they aren't much use as preparation for what happens in big city nightclubs. It won't be pretty.

Fixing this - increasing the number of genuinely competitive teams going to a World Cup - has proved beyond those who run the game. Getting the smaller playing nations up to speed is a monumental logistical and political task, compounded by the elite tier one nations - who are expected to fund it - being driven by short-term self-interest.

Where World Rugby might make some headway, however, is in creating a fund or mechanism that allows big players in small countries to resist the hard cash of clubs when it comes to the top tournaments. Four years ago in New Zealand, Eddie O'Sullivan, then with the US, was denied the huge presence of Samu Manoa who chose instead to sign his first big professional contract with Northampton Saints. They wanted him before, during and after the World Cup. No choice to be made.

This time round we have Uruguay's only high-profile professional, Rodrigo Capo Ortega, flicking a switch in the last few weeks. When last year his team secured their presence in England 2015 with a play-off win over Russia, he was effusive about the prospects of playing on the biggest stage rugby can offer. Now he has announced his retirement from international rugby, and will be plugging away with Castres. The French club say it's got nothing to do with them. Well they would, wouldn't they?

The reality is that players from tier two and three countries, and the Pacific Islands in particular, are relatively easy pickings for clubs who can offer medium term financial security over the short-term glory of playing in a World Cup. Countering this is the challenge for World Rugby. And if you saw how the Six Nations unions lost the battle for control of European club competitions last year, you'll know that it is a tall order to deliver.

So in the meantime, get out your calculator for there will be some fearful hidings. And that will be compounded by the likelihood of the usual suspects getting to the quarter-finals.

In 2007, the progression of the Pumas to this stage - and beyond - was a boost, even if the game they played en route was rugby's equivalent of what our GAA brethren know as puke football.

This time we have 10 teams going for eight places: Australia, England, Wales, South Africa, Scotland, Samoa, New Zealand, Argentina, Ireland and France. If someone from outside that bunch gets to the last eight, some turf accountants will be pulling down the shutters.

The effect of this virtual certainty is to put a huge premium on the quality of the football. Certainly we will get some awesome occasions, but we need quality to overcome the long odds on real surprises.

In France in 2007, the cart was on its side and the apples were all over the road after the opening night when Argentina beat the host nation. It hadn't righted itself by the time Ireland huffed and puffed their way past Namibia.

Our expectations this time are high, but without the vulgar demands created by the Celtic Tiger. And we're all the better for it.

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