Ireland have ultimately failed on the international stage over the last ten years, despite a wealth of talent and opportunities, writes Brian Barry.
Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland’s greatest servant, takes to the field to kick off his last 6 Nations Championship this weekend. The man has no more to prove to anyone. His retirement signals the end of what has been described as the ‘Golden Generation’ of Irish rugby. There only remains a few veterans from the Eddie O’Sullivan era. And as the great man’s career draws to a close, we wonder can he make one last push along with his teammates and deliver a second Grand Slam?
Since the turn of the millennium, Irish rugby has been blessed with this so-called ‘Golden Generation.’ But looking at what has been achieved in those years, it is pitiful considering. One Grand Slam stands alone after years of domestic domination. Leinster, Muster and Ulster have delivered six Heineken Cups in 14 years, with plenty of near misses to boot. We had, and still have, players at which the world look on with envy. And what do we have to show for it? One Grand Slam. Ireland ultimately failed in the last three World Cups, with two quarter-final appearances where they were left licking their wounds, wondering where it all went wrong. The national team are still to beat New Zealand, the barometer of international rugby, after years of bad luck, near misses and painful losses.
What can be blamed for this lack of success? It is not for want of world-class players nor coaches, nor support (for the most part.) What can be attributed is the negative mindset; a lack of belief. This is not only of the team, but also the media and supporters, ie. the rugby community as a whole in the country. Ireland have thrown in the towel on several occasions before a ball was kicked. Be it the summer tour of 2012, where they narrowly missed out against the All-Blacks in the second test, and had it in the mind that ‘we missed our chance last week’ going into the third game, only to be blown away on a scoreline 60-0. With 2014 comes the bi-annual pessimism; traveling to England and France away, so the consensus determines that a Championship is out of the question this year.
Wales have arguably been a better team than either France or England over the last 10 years, but our small-country mentality has not attached such an irrational stigma to them. We have gone to Cardiff without fear on many occasions, and got the result needed, and never fear them at home. A belief is what is needed. Irish players, be it in the red of Munster, blue of Leinster, white of Ulster, or even green of Connacht recently, face their Welsh, English and French counterparts every other week with confidence and conviction. Look at Leinster doing a job in Franklins Gardens a number of weeks ago. Or when Connacht traveled to Toulouse and raided the aristocrats for four points. Or when Munster were not given a prayer when they visited The Stoop last year. Irish teams have triumphed in the face of adversity in the past, yet time and time again they enter international contest with a defeatist attitude.
Entering the 2014 6 Nations, there is no point looking to form or players to determine Ireland’s chances. We have done that before. The bottom line is that this team is more than capable of stringing five wins together. However, other factors suggest that Grand Slam is not beyond this team.
Joe Schmidt has taken over from Declan Kidney, and there is a feel-good factor about the national team after the heartbreak against New Zealand. Declan Kidney is of course a great coach, but a fresh change of approach is just what Ireland need. It has suited them well in the past. In Declan Kidney’s first 6 Nations, he delivered the holy grail that was the Grand Slam. A change in management has proved to have worked a charm in the past. Here’s hoping it will work again.
The schedule is kind to Ireland this year. They open their account against Scotland in Landsowne Road this Sunday. No matter the circumstances, a home tie to the Scots is a game Ireland must win. The following week, the Welsh come to town. Unfortunately, Dublin has been a happy hunting ground for Wales in recent years. The 6 Nations is all about momentum, and with a win against Scotland, O’Driscoll and co. will fancy their chance against Wales. Win that and you’re on the crest of a wave as the bandwagon rolls onto London. Ireland will host Italy in week 4 before going to Paris for St Patrick’s weekend.
All in all, the omens look good for Ireland to launch an assault on the 6 Nations Championship, but when has that not been the case at this time of year? The provinces are going well. Nothing new there… The next two months will give us a big indication if there are major changes taking place under the stewardship of Joe Schmidt.
Pundit Arena, Brian Barry.