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MacKenna On Monday: We All Want Ireland To Thrive But Arrogance Isn’t The Way

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It was the weekend of the Ireland-New Zealand game in November, and the quotes and cuttings were worthy of keeping.

On the Friday before the off, Stephen Watson on BBC NI’s Newsline programme set the tone when calling it “the biggest sporting fixture this year”. The World Cup final and Super Bowl may have had something to say and, even if he was perhaps speaking in terms of our island, with it being a mere test against a jaded side at the end of their season who had come across the planet via Japan and England, it made no sense. Granted, that was the sell.

And yet it was tame compared to the reaction that followed an extremely good win.

Context was absolutely not king…

Alan Quinlan wrote that it was “the pinnacle of Irish sporting achievement”. The Irish Times said Joe Schmidt should be brought in to sort out Brexit and ran a separate column as if it was similar to the moon landing or Kennedy assassination asking, ‘Where were you when Ireland beat the All Blacks?’

Neil Francis claimed that “the performance was one of resolution and self-reliance, of superior group intellect, of anticipatory skill and a resolve instilled by a headmaster who is without question the best coach in the world. Experience teaches only the teachable”.

It went on…

One article said of Peter O’Mahony that “when he limped off, spent, entering the last quarter the acclaim could be heard on his home planet in that distant galaxy of superheroes”. Jacob Stockdale – a man out of the Ulster pool and all that came to represent in 2018 – was described as not just the embodiment of how Schmidt builds teams, but people.

And on…

The42 had a page regarding the story behind the iconic photo of the match-winning try. Tomás O’Leary on radio made comparisons with England’s World Cup-winning side. Meanwhile, even the usually excellent Bernard Jackman got ahead of himself and said that it had confirmed Ireland’s status as one of the top two teams in the sport, regardless of what happened in the Six Nations.

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Hold that lot up against the backdrop of what’s been a far-from-inspiring 2019 thus far.

Appearing on Newstalk at the time, and running through that very list, the reaction to a call for calm around what even Rory Best described as “a friendly” was quite remarkable and reeked of the usual entitlement and of attacking the messenger because you don’t like the message. What few in their haste and lust for glory realised though was this was about protecting Irish rugby from itself and from repeating the same mistakes. After all, theirs is a past that so often reminds that while some people crave the attention that comes with centre stage when in the crowd, they may reflect and change their minds when they get up there under the brightest lights.

We all want Ireland to thrive and hit their highest gear later this year and arrogance wasn’t the best way to go about that. Yet those same folk who invented titles like best team of 2018 and the de facto world number ones went quiet recently.

The woodwork must have been a packed and awkward place.

This isn’t about getting into the class causes but rather the effect of such hype and hysteria. Being self-aware and then being self-critical is vital to staying at the top for long stints. It’s a strange case as the true greats never get to enjoy being the best for the fear of the fall is usually what motivates them to stay there. That didn’t come across since November.

It’s why, had this Six Nations gone to plan, it would have been an unmitigated disaster.

That’s because if Irish rugby went house hunting it’d buy the property before stepping foot inside the door. If it went on a first date it would get down on one knee. But there’s no use being the life of the party after a second glass of wine over dinner but being denied entry to the club due to slurred speech and stumbling steps. We’ve never been good with patience and timing.

With the provinces incredibly still on top of the club game despite the sugar daddies and TV millions invested elsewhere, with the Grand Slam won, with the under-20s proving the conveyor belt is still cranking along at a great rate, with a previously elusive series win in Australia, and with those long-awaited victories over New Zealand, Ireland have ticked an awful lot of boxes in recent seasons. Such is the level of success, though, that all roads have to lead to this World Cup.

It’s the one glaring hole in the CV.

And it’s there where walls need to be broken down and bridges crossed and points proven, for, after all the talk of greatness around not just this group but previous so-called golden generations in 2007 and 2015, it’s there that you prove it. If this side were now in the position of, say, Wales, and knowing how we overreact to the trailer having not yet watched the movie, it wouldn’t be a cause for confidence. Now, however, Ireland oddly find themselves in a much better place.

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Yesterday was about getting back on the bike and slowly getting back to the level of 2018.

France were the perfect opposition for that.

You’ve to have some semblance of pride and emit a sense of caring to feel embarrassed thus the visitors may not exude such an emotion, but they ought to. Had Italy turned up with such an attitude during times when they were called out for reducing the quality of the competition, the argument to exclude them would have had far more merit. Indeed a cattle prod wouldn’t have gotten a jolt out of a group of surly, disinterested losers and this is a far deeper issue than the traditional flick-the-switch or their historical mood swings can solve. But that’s their problem.

That their standard stank though allowed for a result that will add a small sliver of confidence but it’s a performance that holes can be picked in, and hopefully, lessons can be learned from. In fact, there were already improvements on what went before, with work clearly done around the previous spate of handling errors, lineout issues and the general mentality.

Three wins out of four without ever playing superbly is the ideal situation as it will have calmed down egos and tempered expectations without the train coming right off the tracks. It’s merely a welcome speed break and it leaves the group knowing there’s work to do. The intensity isn’t what it was. An expansive side to their game doesn’t show signs of flourishing. The defence is there for the taking. There’s a massive lack of a ruthless streak as that should have been a 40-point win. Conor Murray makes us wonder why he’s untouchable. That these issues are so evident is a good thing.

Crucially, given this situation, they’ve the perfect coach to sort all that out.

Joe Schmidt Wales Cardiff

There are few enough ways to put an asterisk beside Schmidt and much of what he has done. If Declan Kidney’s win record stood at 51.9 per cent when national coach, if Eddie O’Sullivan’s was at 64.9 per cent when he left, the New Zealander is at 74.2 per cent. Granted, on a grander scale, it’s worth noting Eddie Jones with England is at 79.5 per cent.

But this isn’t so much about what’s measurable as what isn’t, for Ireland’s downfall is so often an attitude around indulgence when going well. It’s why reading the coach’s quotes during the week was akin to slapping down an ice pack on a badly sun-burnt back.

“Probably, the All Blacks are the only team who consistently stay at the top,” said Schmidt. “You consider England, Six Nations Grand Slam, they get the Six Nations the following year, and the year after that they are fifth. How does that happen with most of the same personnel? It is one of those things that is a little bit difficult. I know even talking to Franck Azema in Clermont, champions one year and 10th the next. How does that happen?

“It’s not apathy, it’s not overconfidence, I’m not sure how you might explain it. But there’s a real forward-thinking about the group. So what’s happened last year is certainly last year. Because last year’s results don’t help you win anything this year. If anything, I think Steve is suggesting it hinders you winning things this year. It certainly puts a target on you.”

That target has since been removed as have many of the memories of that New Zealand victory. It’s now about gradual steps back to the top rather than having to stay there.

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Right now there’s no chatter about superheroes from distant galaxies, no questions about where you were yesterday, no iconic photos, no claims to being the best. We should be hugely grateful.

For via their relative struggles rather than successes, a far better foundation is slowly being laid.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

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