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MacKenna On Monday: Ireland Performances Were Heartless And Spineless

There were a spectacular handful of seconds caught on television on Saturday morning.

With a little over 78 minutes gone in the World Cup quarter-final, and the scoreboard in the corner of the screen reading New Zealand 41 -14 Ireland, the camera zoomed in on Joe Schmidt. He looked a brutal combination of exhausted and stunned, the colour draining away as the bags under his eyes were enhanced against his whitening skin. In the background though, groups of Irish fans were out of their seats – jumping, waving, smiling, laughing, and actually celebrating.

There’s no other way to describe them beyond the epitome of losers.

Ewan MacKenna

But it’s also the sorry essence of what Irish rugby has become. A day out or a trip away where winning is great but it doesn’t really matter either, for most don’t seem to be bothered much.

It continued on thereafter. Rory Best may have spent years with his shoulder to the wheel but there was no embarrassment in his after-match words.

“Unbelievable crowd… All Blacks were fantastic… We felt we’d a gameplan… They came out of the blocks fast.”

All boxes were ticked and the noise in the stand went up in admiration at annihilation. Do these people realise the amateur era finished long ago? Do they realise these are professionals who went out to do a job and failed miserably? Had they walked into Spar and ordered a chicken roll, only to be handed a box of potato wedges, would they get to their feet and applaud the person behind the counter?

Champions come from cultures that care about the result and are infuriated by any and all losses. Ireland though are just there to take part and serenade the locals with songs. And, while the players don’t share or subscribe to that attitude, they do have to endure it season after season.

Ewan MacKenna

Your surrounds have an effect, no matter how hard you try to be immune. Proof was Iain Henderson saying they didn’t prepare properly for Japan. Proof was Best as captain proudly taking the plaudits when he and his entire team should have run for the dressing rooms instead.

All in all, Irish rugby was again lacking in accountability and in reality, thus around and around we go. To the point that the likes of Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Cian Healy and Conor Murray can likely be added to a long list that includes Paul O’Connell, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara in never making it past the last eight in what amounts to a competition taken to any relatively high level by between eight and 10 teams. What a waste.

Here we were promised Michelin star and we got soggy chips from Macari.

Here we were promised Tom Waits and all we could hear was Ed Sheeran?

Here we were promised Ed Norton only for Adam Sandler to emerge.

This was heartless stuff. This was gutless stuff. This was spineless stuff.

Ewan MacKenna

Strip away the hype, and even considering the inevitable defeat that was coming down the tracks, they are not the opening salvo of words we expected to come to mind via this World Cup catastrophe. However, it didn’t even take long for them to crop up in what was a humiliation.

Before the off, Best himself looked terrified, overwrought by the occasion and lacking steel, courage and confidence. He was far from alone though as six unforced errors were racked up in a rubbish 25 minutes. The narrative may have changed out of protectionism in the aftermath to the quality of the opposition – and there’s no denying that for they were ruthless – but they were helped along by those in green who weren’t fit for purpose. If there was a feeling in advance that Ireland might struggle to live with the intensity for the 80 minutes, it turned out they couldn’t handle even 10.

A quarter in and it reminded of the Lucius Sweet line in The Simpsons. “You couldn’t even give me one lousy round, Moe. You will always be a loser. Now take your cheque for $100,000.”

It was that bad. Pathetic, actually.

Ewan MacKenna

If you find that harsh, then tough, as it’s about time we get real about rugby in this country. Let’s see if there’s a DVD of this one out for Christmas? Let’s see who dares show on the Late Late?

Heads should hang in shame.

It’s cringe-worthy to look back at the reaction and bounce in the step after beating a New Zealand team in 2017 that were actually on the batter in Chicago, and a New Zealand team in 2018 who were worn out and hurt, at the end of their long season, and finishing up a world tour having arrived in Dublin via Japan and England to play a team away that it mattered far more to. No one ever said those weren’t good victories or they shouldn’t be enjoyed, but the warnings were about not taking them out of context and not inflating egos to the point of bursting.

Many though couldn’t help themselves with the too-much-too-soon-over-too-little experience of playing at greatness. If there was a World Cup in 2018, we’d have been the team of 2017.

Ewan MacKenna

Our mouths wrote a cheque their talents couldn’t cash. In a sense, it reminded of Conor McGregor a year ago as he came out to face Khabib Nurmagomedov. He’d spent the entire build-up speaking of his brilliance, in order to deflect from what everyone knew was coming. As he walked to the cage though he looked scared and in it, he was completely outclassed by real class.

The Irish rugby community has just gone and done the same thing.

In hindsight, Schmidt, for all he has done well, got an outrageous amount of slack when announcing he was going a year out from this competition, before sticking with players well past it, before turning up at the competition with same one-dimensional and predictable play that literally the world was ready for. There was nothing new or nothing particularly impressive about Ireland at any point of late to the degree that at times it had the feel of the 2007 debacle.

England warned us in a warm-up; Wales’ reserves came close; for a half against Scotland we blamed the weather; for two halves against Japan we blamed it again; Russia’s second team. having made its way here only through the disqualification of others, fronted up and were as good as us for large portions of a second-half; and even after all of that many in Irish rugby were showing serious signs of delusion. That Schmidt might have an ace card and a secret formula. That the players would come good when the big day came and destiny was laid out before them.

Ewan MacKenna

Jamie Heaslip said on national television beforehand that, “I was looking at both 15s and I wouldn’t swap anyone – I actually think New Zealand might take one or two of our players if they had the choice.” This a group that had kicked the ball out to get a losing bonus point against Japan.

What many failed to realise is you cannot turn it on, especially when you’ve our limited skill set. The hosts had already shown us up around that, having reached a greater level of attacking weaponry in a matter of years than we have in a nation where the sport is and has supposedly always been a life-long passion. Do we know we’re allowed to offload and pass before being drawn into a ruck, or are we just not good enough to achieve a basic tenant of the modern game?

Worse though, if Ireland were never going to compete on that level against true greats, to see them battered and bruised in the physical stakes was unforgivable. So bad was this that we aren’t sure if we’ve ever seen any Irish team in a big international display less pride and heart. Not being good enough can happen. That shouldn’t. It became clear quickly this lot wanted out.

And still many cheered.

Of course, now there’s a large part of Irish rugby that will resort to going after the messenger because they hate the message, no matter how true it is. However, if the game here is to ever move beyond the sort of laughing stock that the rest of the planet loves watching, as we talk ourselves off a cliff every four years in the way the English soccer team do, they need the mirror.

Ewan MacKenna

More than ever, flaws and the ugly face must be stared down and ultimately accepted.

For instance, for most of this century, we’ve been hearing about the growth in the game and the passion for it beyond the same old strongholds. Why then, in all that time, have the numbers going to provincial academies, playing for provinces, and getting international caps remained stable around those coming from the handful of elite private schools?

Why, given this opportunity, have the IRFU not widened the net, not in terms of participation, but in giving those new to participating the chance to be the best they can be and best we have? Many talk with pride about our system but limiting the production line is limiting talent and thus here we are.

The GAA has backed itself into a corner, soccer is in trouble, yet how has rugby capitalised?

Instead in terms of the top end of the game, it remains class-based, closeted and closed off.

Expanding the game and the paths to the zenith would also have an added bonus of appeasing those who perhaps rightly see it as a team of them rather than a team of us. Yet so many in rugby, rather than tackle that very real issue, would rather tackle those who say it is an issue. It’s one more reason why many despise it and will have cheered on this defeat.

Ewan MacKenna
Rugby has allowed itself to continue to embody a mixture of the old money of the West Brit and the new money of the Celtic Tiger and its more recent offspring. They spent their time shouting at those that don’t get in line and follow what they follow rather than facing down the troubles within their sport.

The delusion will likely continue though to the point that four years down the line, after perhaps picking up a Six Nations when others are getting ready for a World Cup, another Breffni can emerge from a Paris suburb and tell us the place is stacked with lads for absolute carnage.

There are some great rugby people. Some hard-working volunteers. Some fascinating players.

But the whiff of smug and the bang of failure overwhelms them all. It’s a lethal combination.

During the week, a friend was on a flight from Dublin to Dubai, sadly sharing the space with some IRFU officials who were stopping over before heading on to Japan. “Hell,” they said of the eight hours of blazers going back and forth between seat and classes, singing and shouting, defying cabin crew who asked them to dial it down, with one air hostess saying they aren’t bouncers and could only apologise to customers. It was Irish rugby encapsulated off the field.

Just as Saturday was Irish rugby encapsulated on the field.

The attitude. The flight. The performance. The result. The fans. All embarrassing.

Frankly, good riddance to the lot of it.

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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.