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MacKenna On Monday: Ireland Must Show Us Not Tell Us They Are Best In The World

Rory Best was still out on the pitch, taking in his final farewell, when my phone started buzzing.

One after another, media outlets and sports sites were busy breaking news.

“Ireland now the number one team in the world,” was the standard incoming message.

Pride usually cometh before the fall. A sentiment Irish rugby has never challenged but has long been ruled over by.

A nice achievement, but ultimately a completely meaningless one, and Joe Schmidt was quick to try and put it into context. “It’s a nice label to get but it’s not relevant to us,” he noted. The problem is it’ll make the apt and key label all the more difficult to shed.

* * *

It’s hard not to get the feeling that the coach cannot win.

Even, paradoxically, when he has won. Or perhaps especially when Ireland have won.

From untouchable to hopeless to the best about and all in the tiny confines of less than a year.

Rugby country – it’s a weird rather than the marketed-and-sold wondrous place.

Schmidt has been here long enough to recognise that a major problem we have is the constant hysteria that leaves no time and no room for reflection, perspective, and for the sort of calm growth that’s needed to improve on what’s often extremely good. He can say he and those in his squads don’t take notice of outside views, but when a group are based entirely in a fishbowl, there’s no getting away from the water’s temperature. Particularly when the hero narrative, the darling storyline, is so in your face.

Let’s go back to the New Zealand game last November as the starting point for not only a hugely premature lead-in to this World Cup, but for the split-personality disorder the game induces in so many here. That was a jumped-up friendly and yet it still managed to be re-invented and stuffed awkwardly into a box called history. Indeed the next day there were those in media tripping over one another to get in with the most fawning.

A small sample.

It was “the pinnacle of Irish sporting achievement”. It “confirmed our status as one of the top two teams in the world regardless of what happens in the Six Nations”. The coach should be “brought in to sort out Brexit”. He was “without doubt the best in the world” too. Jacob Stockdale was “the embodiment of not just how Joe Schmidt builds teams but people”. There were “parallels with England’s World Cup-winning team”. The wave crashed over even the coolest of heads. Notions quickly abounded.

This isn’t policing comments or views, it’s holding them up against an obvious reality.

Yet the more people talked, the more it became troubling for there was never circumstance.

It was heresy to mention New Zealand were out on their feet, at the end of a long season as we merely started ours with a freshness and a feistiness, that their bodies were showing the signs of having come to Dublin having played away in Japan and in England first, that home venue is huge in the sport, that only the World Cup would decide whether we were good or actually great.

Context was banned at the door. Inside we all were forced to party.

Shortly after that final whistle, a request came through from the Late Late Show looking to get Peter O’Mahony on. For those in Montrose this ticked every box. He agreed but, soon after, another call came through for his dad. A friend was warning them not to do it as there was a far bigger picture and this was turning a journey into the destination. As a contrast the person noted that Richie McCaw wouldn’t be going on and that’s the difference between wanting to truly be the very best when it matters versus a nation insisting on inflating egos far beyond relatively fine achievements, and all for some short-term delusion.

Next came the DVD, onto the shelves for Christmas. The World Cup couldn’t come quickly enough.

Now we go there with that glorious tag of world number ones though.

But there’s another label still shackled like a millstone, and it hangs heavy.

* * *

You can be sure that there’ll be no English documentary titled ‘Four Days in August’.

A couple of weeks back, after their record-breaking win against us, they went on about their business for there’s only one trophy that they and their rugby public use to define them. Actual winners. Actual people that have climbed the rugby summit.

Back here though, we were once more lacking in context. This was collapse, a throwback to 2007, an inexplicable implosion that saw Scotland as group favourites and Japan as a major threat. Hardly ever was it said that it was the first warm-up game out of a hard-hitting, warm-weather training camp. Again there was the rush to an extreme.

Suddenly the World Cup could not come too soon.

We’re lucky we got that fortnight out of the way and can veer viciously the other way like a windsock in a hurricane. All in all it’s as if we’ve adopted in our rugby the it’s-coming-home mentality from English soccer. Swinging out of control between overconfidence and complete depression. Always histrionics. Never rationale.

The truth is that Ireland were a decent-to-good side likely to make a World Cup quarter-final a year ago, and today they are exactly that as well. Those who go on to win the biggest prize in the sport don’t tend to overheat beforehand, much like the life-and-soul of the party doesn’t tend to be boozed-up and dancing on tables at lunch. History shows this.

In 1986, New Zealand twice lost to Australia and were thumped by France. In 1990, Australia twice lost to New Zealand and were well beaten by France. In 1994, South Africa lost twice to New Zealand and were stuffed by England. In 1998, Australia lost twice to South Africa. In 2002, France and not England won the Grand Slam. In 2006, South Africa lost to Ireland and England, and came last in a Tri-Nations campaign where they endured a 49-0 loss. Even in being a gentle exception to a rule that says you’ve to time it just right, in 2010 New Zealand lost to Australia and in 2014 they were beaten by South Africa.

All those sides went on to win when it mattered most.

In the same way the actual results of warm-up games on the eve of the tournament are a sign of so little to come and we ourselves have no excuse not to know this. In 2011, we went zero for four yet topped the pool. Last time out it was a meagre two for four.

Thus the World Cup and it alone is unique as it’s the only occasion in a four-year cycle filled with fawning and, frankly, bullshit, that everyone is equally prepared and it’s there we finally get a true reflection of how we match up. As for Schmidt and the greatest-ever narrative that’s been going for so long, only now can we learn if that’s true or if he’s been picking up the easy wins all along rather than building for a competition where the age profile needs to be perfect along with so much else.

That’s the great fear as for an age we’ve been playing a similar style with a similar team sheet and after the England match we were suddenly concerned about depth and options. That says a lot about a lot.

This isn’t to say Saturday wasn’t good but there’s an effort to push it beyond such parameters. There always is, but remember there was bad too.

Robbie Henshaw and James Ryan were superb and CJ Stander looks at home at six. It also came with the sort of intensity and choke tackling that will be needed throughout the coming weeks. But elsewhere the line-out struggled, Jack Conan struggled and Keith Earls’ body looks to be struggling. In fact ultimately, perhaps the major takeaway despite the result, is the attack is so predictable that it won’t score enough when it matters.

But time will tell and the true concern about topping the rankings is that it’s an artificial height to place the group at, so that the inevitable quarter-final defeat seems all the more disappointing when it comes about. And as for that label Schmidt and them will find it harder still to shed? Chokers.

So world number ones?

Show us, don’t tell us.

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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.