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FEATURE 'Let's return to reality - Ireland must exercise caution'

'Let's return to reality - Ireland must exercise caution'
2 months ago

It was the aftermath of a November international at Lansdowne Road 21 years ago. The final whistle had sounded and the man on the PA decided it was time to mark the occasion by finding the right song.

The rain was falling, the wind swirling and a winter’s chill bit into the bones. But Ireland had just beaten the world champion Wallabies, their first victory over Australia in 23 years. So ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2 seemed an entirely appropriate soundtrack. The crowd loved the choice and the players, led by their youthful captain, Brian O’Driscoll, milked the applause on a lap of honour.

Eyebrows rose. A lap of honour to celebrate a win in November? Seriously?

Afterwards Eddie Jones was asked to sum up what the day meant to both teams and in his inimitable way, he gave with one hand before taking with the other. “Ireland were good today,” Jones, in his first spell as Australia coach, reflected. “But we look forward to playing them next year (at the 2003 World Cup) on a dry track.”

You could see why. Because when it mattered most, Australia won.

That’s the recurring theme. Australia in 2002, England each year from 2004 to 2007, South Africa in 2009, New Zealand in 2016 and again in 2018, the Springboks last November and again on Saturday night, Ireland have plenty of experience of beating the reigning world champions.

But not when it counts.

Mack Hansen celebrates after Ireland sink the world champion Springboks in Paris. (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

Yes, Saturday’s 13-8 win over the Springboks carries some significance, seeing as it opens up an easier path to a final.

But let’s return to reality here. Saturday night was a pool match. No medals have ever been awarded to a team for winning respect. And right now, hysteria is spreading through Ireland way faster than Covid-19 ever did when a calmness vaccine is what the nation needs.

Yet it won’t be easily attained because with the exception of Westlife and Boyzone, you will do well to come across a group of Irishmen who know what it is like to be No 1. The football team peaked at No 8 in FIFA’s world rankings, and for a brief period before the last World Cup, the Joe Schmidt led team topped the charts.

But not for long. Defeats to hosts Japan and then the All Blacks turned the 2019 World Cup into a disaster. That’s what World Cups tend to be for Ireland. They’ve won big pool matches before – Wales in 1995, Argentina in 2003, Australia in 2011, France in 2015, Scotland in 2019 – and then come up short when it really counted.

If that’s not a cautionary tale then how about this one. In 2007, Ireland defeated England at Croke Park, the first game between the two nations at a venue where British soldiers had assassinated innocent Irishmen nearly a century earlier.

A queue of people were lining up to ask if you were going to bring the Webb Ellis Cup with you the next time you went shopping.

Eddie O’Sullivan

Croke Park opened its doors and 83,000 people opened their ears to God Save the Queen. “If there was one rugby match we could not afford to lose, it was that one,” the then Ireland coach, Eddie O’Sullivan reflected. “England coming to Croke Park for the first time, we had to win. Nothing else was acceptable.”

They did win, but in doing so, the hype generated eventually caught up with the team, who flew out to that year’s World Cup with hope, but who returned home before the postcards, finishing third in their pool.

“For six months, you couldn’t escape the talk,” O’Sullivan says. “I had to stop going to the local supermarket. You’d be standing there thinking, ‘I must get two litres of milk’ and a queue of people were lining up to ask if you were going to bring the [Webb Ellis] trophy with you the next time you went shopping. Expectations went through the roof.”

They have gone even higher this time. Saturday’s capture of the Springboks scalp was the 16th win in a row for a team who, since June last year, have won a series in New Zealand, a clean sweep in the November’s series, a grand slam and are now three from three in this tournament.

Ireland can ill afford to lose their talismanic 38-year-old captain, Johnny Sexton. (Photo by PA)

Impressed? Well, look at these facts. Since the first staging of the World Cup in 1987, only five countries — New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France – have reached the final and in the last year and a bit, since a loss to the All Blacks at Eden Park, Ireland have met those five teams seven times, winning each game. Little wonder they are being talked up.

So, let’s consider then the following words from Ireland’s lock forward Iain Henderson:

“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re exceptionally comfortable with expectation levels, with everyone thinking this, that or the other — but we’re relatively good at blocking them out,” Henderson said. “Outside of match week, when we’re out and about, in shops, on the street or whatever, everyone will listen to people’s opinions and be affected differently. But match week is essentially the week that matters and that’s when we work hard for each other and don’t let ourselves become affected by external factors.”

Now let’s remember when Henderson said this sentence.

It wasn’t in the aftermath of Saturday in Paris, but following Ireland’s defeat of the All Blacks in 2018. The next year, Ireland met New Zealand again in the World Cup quarter-final and lost by 32 points.

That’s why the biggest job Andy Farrell has between now and Saturday week is to keep everyone calm – his players, his staff, his supporters.

Those who remember those days, those who sacrificed so much to keep rugby alive and united in a troubled country, are justifiably feeling the pride that is being created now by a team reaching new heights each time they play.

We can understand the hype because there are people of a certain generation who remember the 1990s, when Ireland lost 11 out of 11 to France, 10 out of 11 to Scotland, two out of 10 to England, two out of two to Namibia, three in a row to Italy, another game to Western Samoa, and each and every match they played against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

If the 90s were bad, the 70s and 80s were worse for different reasons. The Troubles nearly took the lives of three Ireland players, Nigel Carr, Davy Irwin and Philip Rainey, as they were inadvertently caught up in a bomb blast on their way to an Ireland training session. Another two Ireland players, Jim McCoy and Brian McCall, required armed protection every time they crossed the border to represent their country.

Those who remember those days, those who sacrificed so much to keep rugby alive and united in a troubled country, are justifiably feeling the pride that is being created now by a team reaching new heights each time they play.

Add in the country’s fairly modest sporting history, one that has yet to see the football or rugby team go beyond a World Cup quarter-final, one where just 11 Olympic gold medals have ever been won under an Irish flag, and you can see why the excitement is rising.

Ireland fans are riding the crest of wave as their team extends an amazing winning run to 16 matches. (Photo by PA)

But it needs to be contained. Look underneath the bonnet and the Ireland engine isn’t operating as smoothly as it seems. Take out Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Andrew Porter or Hugo Keenan, and problems will swiftly appear. The squad lacks depth and to win a World Cup, you need either that or else luck, something Ireland have never had in any of the previous nine tournaments.

So let’s stay cautious. October 28 is a long way away.


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