Home Features MacKenna On Monday: So Much Changes, But Irish Rugby Remains Exactly The Same

MacKenna On Monday: So Much Changes, But Irish Rugby Remains Exactly The Same

It’s worse that it gets.

Not long ago claiming to be the best about, Ireland’s stock slides as if October 24, 1929. By now there’s a debate to be had around if they are even in the top four in their own hemisphere.

From world beaters and contenders, part of the narrative around their latest exit involved running into a team that no one could or would compete with. On Saturday morning, however, that fallacy was ruthlessly dispelled as Eddie Jones had a gameplan while his players had an attitude, a physicality and a skill-set that meant the only wonder afterwards was how they won by just 12. All in all, it was impossible not to admire them, and difficult not to root for them.

In that regard, they were the anti-Ireland.

Where does all of this leave this island? Aside from the continued cringe around numerous outbreaks of The Fields of Athenry at a semi-final they weren’t a part of, as fans tried to take over someone else’s party via their ongoing need for attention and warm reviews, it slotted in neatly to a long-term trend. In the professional era of the game, going back to and including the 1995 edition, the team to beat them in a knock-out match has always lost their very next match.

We aren’t losing to the best, as much as that might help with the pain. Far from it. Thus we remain a rugby footnote, like a loner talking to himself in the mirror about his masses of mates.

The statistics go on and tell a terrible tale. Of the teams that knocked Ireland out of the last five World Cups – including Argentina in the last pool match in 2007, as it was stand up or go home and, of course, we went home – they’ve on average had a higher ranking come kick-off, with it working out at 4.6 against 5.6.

Yet every time they were beaten by double scores or worse, with the average coming out at a haunting 37-16. Yet these were the eras of O’Driscoll and O’Connell, of O’Gara and Sexton, of Wallace and Ferris, of D’Arcy and Hickie, of Murray and Kearney, of O’Mahony and O’Brien. All guys who achieved a lot for sure, but who many too easily handed the tag of greats without any complex thought around such weighty compliments.

Fool’s gold called golden generations as self-praise was masquerading as actual praise.

So much of it is based on what we pick up when others don’t care as much, such as at the Six Nations, where the big boys have bigger plans and their goals involve real greatness. Watch how England react when they win it – those in the current set-up have repeatedly played it down and said it’s part of the journey rather than the destination – and listen to how they think about the cycles in this sphere.

A while back, it was fascinating to hear Eddie Jones tell Donald McRae of The Guardian about the peaks and troughs. “Wait until the third season, mate,” he noted, “we might hit a bit of a low then.” He knew this having looked at the records of southern-hemisphere coaches who had come and had a go at the international game in Europe. By his reckoning, there was often a boost in the first season as fitness levels were seriously improved, that trend continued into season two, but come the third edition the southern-hemisphere lift was replaced by familiarity breeding contempt and stagnation. “This was a four-year project,” Jones stressed, and the way he dealt with a third-year slide would shape his World Cup. Basically, he’d planned for all the swings and roundabouts and knew this was about getting it completely right come this month.

Ireland’s four-year project? Completed in year three, after which they were busy celebrating when no one was watching or caring as much as them, as if a drunk hitting top form before the sun had gone down and the rest had come out to play. It got so bad that it was never so much as questioned when Joe Schmidt, for instance, was said to be the best coach on the planet and it was simply presumed that the All Blacks would be his next port of call. Imagine that now?

Last week he was reduced to a long line of rather pathetic excuses as he showed up in Dublin Airport.

“We created some really good chances… I didn’t foresee we’d make uncharacteristic errors… I felt we were rushed in our preparation… The human factor, things don’t work out as well as you’d like… No lack of effort, maybe a heightened anxiety… Sometimes when you want something too much you try too hard… Whether you lose by one point or 30 you’re still out of the tournament… It’s not for lack of effort, we wanted to play with width… One problem we did have in Japan was how slippy conditions were, particularly with the high humidity.”

He’s a thoroughly nice man, but this all seemed cheap, like that Scotland defeat coming down to a bus to Murrayfield running a couple of minutes late. This, after all, is business, not personal.

When you look back, he had pretty much complete control of Irish rugby for six-and-a-half years and showed up to two World Cups where key elements were very wrong. Depth and mentality in 2015, much more this time. There has to be accountability as imagine that, twice, you were given big bucks to lead your company’s main project yet when it came to rolling it out, on both occasions you failed. There’d be big conversations as only then can there be big improvements.

As Jones has said, “That’s why preparation is everything. You get it right, the chances of your team being successful are high”. There’s a good reason he’s headed to a final as a favourite.

There’s a good reason Schmidt and his team have long since come home.

* * *

What to do about Irish rugby?

Since forever, it seems the idea has been to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. In other words, as Einstein would have called it, the definition of sheer stupidity. It’s quite remarkable that still, to this day, our World Cup zenith was probably the 1991 defeat to Australia when we arguably had our worst ever team at the tournament. This meanwhile could be classed as the worst by some metrics, given that loss to little, old Japan.

We don’t want to learn though. We don’t even want to dip a toe into reality.

Having been blanketed with hype for the last two years, in the days after this latest quarter-final exit there was a shift to move on and move along as there was nothing to see here.

The attitude stinks but the problems go beyond that, even if they’re formed in the same places.

During the week, a friend who’d gone to a private school in England, who has studied sporting models and player production systems in different continents, was curious about our conveyor belt and what we mostly rely on. I sent him the video of Only In God, the documentary that followed Belvedere through their 2008 Leinster Schools Cup-winning adventure. He was stunned. “My God, it’s like a cult,” he remarked.

Aside from the moral aspect of state money being used to give children better chances in life, based around how big their parent’s bank accounts are, aside from forcing a game on those who haven’t yet found their own way in this world, there’s also a rugby effect and downside here.

It is two-fold.

Firstly there’s the win-at-all-costs mentality hammered into mere boys that stays with them, the same mentality we see when it comes to tests and lesser tournaments that others play around with to get the best ultimate results. They experiment and improve which means on occasion sacrificing the result.

Secondly, by allying so much of their system to the same few institutions that are beyond the reach of most, Irish rugby is massively limiting the playing population and talent pool it draws from. This isn’t good enough, as the opportunity and openings are there, particularly at a time when the GAA has sold its soul, and where soccer is a laughing stock tarred by corruption, and at a time for a variety of reasons rugby has been front and centre and pushed by all sorts of marketing.

However, as it stands now, if you’ve any ambition of making it as a professional in Ireland, almost exclusively you better be showing world-class talent by the time you hit puberty or hope that your parents are loaded. What a waste and a disgrace that is.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be though.

The IRFU talks about new clubs, and numbers driven up by women and sevens, and that’s all good and should be commended. Yet all of these people new to the game and from places that were never strongholds or traditional centres of excellence will likely have the door to being elite slammed in their faces as we retreat to the same incestuous pathways. In essence, it’s self-sabotage. Not only on the field but off it as it also creates a stigma, a dislike, and a distance.

Thus, like it or not, and rightly or wrongly, it’s their latest failure, not ours. And that latest failure yet again doesn’t seem to hurt enough to force change.

Just last week Seán O’Brien was recalling how the Ireland team reacted to elimination from the 2011 World Cup. “After that Wales loss, it was some of the best craic I ever had in my life,” he beamed.

“I remember the second night [in New Zealand], I had come down [to the lobby] and Rala O’Reilly had sunglasses on and he was taped into a chair and couldn’t move. No-one was allowed to move him. But we went out that night [after the Wales defeat] and we were out the next morning. I texted Paulie O’Connell and asked, ‘Where are you?’ He comes back with ‘D4 bar. Me and Ferg [McFadden] are here’. ‘On the way, grand.’ So I walk into the bar, and this was after two days of drinking. Paulie was sitting there with Ferg and they had a massive bottle of champagne on the table. The two of them were like best buds, having the craic and high-fiving each other. But when I arrived in, I got the shock of my life. Paulie was like Casper the Ghost. He was completely white and had shrunk. I think he’d lost about two stone in two days. We nicknamed him ‘The Corpse’ for the rest of the day.”

Back with real winners, contrast that with England where Eddie Jones, for instance, has talked about how the humiliation of their 2015 calamity was the foundations of so much of this. Thus they used their hurt whereas don’t even feel it.

On the field. Off the field.

So much changes but Irish rugby remains exactly the same.

About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.