Categories: Features Rugby

MacKenna On Monday: Rugby The Game Of Ireland’s Elite

That was good. Very good, actually.

But stop right there and don’t dare go any further.

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

We beg you.

Please.

For can you imagine this scenario as a glorious alternative to what inevitably plays out next?

Fair, joyous talk of Peter O’Mahony being a monster, and Devin Toner and Tadhg Furlong running into the wall and it retreating. Followed by catching yourself before tumbling over the cliff, and acknowledging that Saturday’s win over New Zealand was impressive but not all that important, and that we’ve made this mistake before as a World Cup is where it’s at.

Sadly, we can only imagine such a perspective though, as we won’t be getting any.

Instead, there was already a “sense of destiny“. There was this being “the celestial citizen of a distant planet“. There was the repetition of one New Zealand journalist’s baffling and possibly jokey claim that we are now the best in the world, as we are as desperate for recognition as those who go on Twitter and tell foreigners to turn on hurling on Sky Sports as it’s great.

Watching the match with five fans from New Zealand, they didn’t think that way. Big rugby fans, the defeat hurt them like a stinger as much as it surprised them. But they were also bullish, looking at the lineouts lost at crucial times, the kick-heavy game that was really bad in execution, a scrum that was rocked, and bad hands at vital moments as areas that must be improved upon.

Crucially they will be rectified come the World Cup as you can bet theirs is a team that will learn a lesson. All the while in victory, we are setting ourselves up for a familiar lesson. Longer term focus and eyes on the big prize will be traded for Jagerbombs on Baggot Street.

Steve Hansen surmised it best. “We’re not going to fix it in a week, but we will fix it and when we get it right, we’ll see some big improvements,” he coldly said before adding words about what next for Ireland. “It’s their turn at the moment so we’ll see how they cope.”

So how will we cope?

This is where it gets worrying. This is where it goes beyond just a game.

* * *

A question the captain of Ireland should have been asked, but never was and never will be.

At the start of this year, during the Six Nations, you’ll remember that Rory Best excused himself from the national camp in the lead-up to a match. On duty but away from duty, he instead headed for a courtroom in Belfast where some Ulster teammates were on trial in a case they’d eventually be cleared in. But the verdict doesn’t excuse his actions.

Best expected us to believe that no permission was sought by a national captain in the build-up to a Six Nations game. And he expected us to believe that he had to be there because someone else’s counsel had told him to take in the environment as he was a character witness, even though it never materialised.

So what about that question?

What were you at Rory and can you clarify all of this, please?

That lot got brushed over and if you’re wondering what it has to do with anything here, it’s crucial as it is the finest example of the special bubble with which rugby operates in this country. It belongs on a different plane and is treated specially and has completely different standards.

That applies to the big issues such as our southern province’s continued meandering into South Africa having already signed one cheat from there. And that applies to the relatively unimportant sporting issues with Ronan O’Gara calling a team great after nothing more than a pool win, and Ian Madigan crying over the same, with both being accepted when such premature hype and hysteria should be called out instantly.

We are a small island and small market and desperate whispers of greatness are heard, never mind the roaring and shouting and fawning. In that way we’ve made our rugby team so soft and, while that may be an odd term given the granite on show over the weekend, there’s a need to separate physicality from mentality; and there’s a need to separate what the vice-president of World Rugby refers to as friendlies from actual games that the rest care about as much as we do.

Of course, the players are professionals and know there is a hierarchy of achievement, but you can’t blank out our constant deifying. The last time they beat the All Blacks they had a DVD made and were off to watch Ryan Tubridy get all warm and fuzzy in their faces. Contrast that with the soccer team who also beat the world champions in a far more important game, as nothing ever became of it.

Perspective only applies to some it seems.

The worst part for rugby is it doesn’t realise we’ve been here before. That’s what happens when so much support is cheaply allied to what’s marketed best, and what’s popular right now. There’s little or no depth beyond the hardy few and it means this isn’t once bitten, or even twice bitten, as this is the third time around. If we are talking about being Six Nations champions the year before the main event and of the serious form in tests a year out from that main event, then let’s glimpse briefly back.

In 2006 we won four out of five in the Six Nations including in Twickenham, and then we walloped both Australia and South Africa.

How did that end up when it mattered?

In 2014 we were Six Nations champions and again beat Australia and South Africa in a perfect end of year.

How are those games remembered given what came next?

Each of those teams were talked about as being golden generations that had the potential to go a long way into the World Cup. And while there was a fear of saying it out loud, there were definitely thoughts of being champions pockmarking a wider nationwide mindset.

And today? Here we go again, lazily confusing and muddling what ought to be the end of the beginning with the notion that this is the beginning of the end.

* * *

Where this comes from is a fascinating discussion for it’s a trip into the elitism of Ireland.

Once old money, it’s become an admiration of any money, and if our choice of sport gives us a loose allegiance to a class, so many are clambering on board to pretend to be mixing with those better off. If you don’t believe us, look at a list that represents this version of Ireland while the notion that rugby is the game of the people and the team of us is still so blindly accepted.

Of the 21 on Saturday’s panel that can make a claim to being Irish, their education went as follows:

– Blackrock (x3)
– St Mary’s (x2)
– St Michael’s (x2)
– St Andrew’s (x2)
– Clongowes, Castleknock College, Wesley, Belvedere, Pres Cork, Wallace High, Portadown College, Belfast Royal, Kirkham Grammar, Munchin’s, Good Counsel, and Ardscoil Rís.

Only those last three via Keith Earls, Furlong and Seán Cronin represent what is normal in our country.

This association with upper class drives rugby’s popularity but it also creates short, hollow memories. However, you can’t say any of this, for you have to celebrate and join that hype and hysteria. This is the sporting equivalent of the political utterance that we all partied. To not drink and dance is to be negative. Perspective rather than sold perception is to be negative. To want fulfilment of potential when it actually matters is negative. And it makes you a begrudger, that term being the Irish equivalent of fake news, a learnt shield to hide behind that saves people from having to think for themselves and debate what are fair alternative opinions based on fact and reality.

Why can’t people just enjoy wins like this, they ask?

Why can’t people just enjoy it without the hyperbole, you retort?

We’ve been here before yet we throw the same ingredients into the blender and expect a different cocktail. We think the world is now scared because of an on-field performance that was no doubt relentless and impressive.

You can be sure though that South Africa are smiling because of what’ll inevitably happen off of that field before the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals on October 20th.

Ewan MacKenna

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

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