Off they go, to a mix of giddy optimism and grim foreboding

Off they go, to a mix of giddy optimism and grim foreboding
Members of the Irish Rugby team pictured this evening at Dublin Airport deaparting for the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

I do like a World Cup airport farewell.

It’s from my background as a TV reporter. TV loves airport farewells.

I think it goes back to Pathé newsreel footage of troop ships crammed with eager conscripts, waved off by teary loved ones, heaving boats inching away from the warm embrace of home and towards the chaos of war.

There’s something about that moment of leave-taking that is perfect, a combination of excitement and apprehension, a sense that anything is possible, an acknowledgement that nothing will ever be the same again.

Also, there are lots of crying babies, which works really well on camera.

Despite regular claims to the contrary, rugby is not war. But Ireland heading off for a World Cup adventure brings its own sense of dark foreboding, even if not quite the mortal peril of which Franno and the like often speak.

The fear comes from our World Cup history, a series of catastrophic blunders and unforeseen calamities, like a quadrennial Spanish Armada doomed to keep crashing into angry Atlantic storms. We shudder at memories of Lens in 1999, the 2007 debacle, the Welsh ambush of 2011 and the decimation of 2015.

Aer Lingus Captain Thomas Jordan with Ireland skipper Rory Best. Picture: Billy Stickland.
Aer Lingus Captain Thomas Jordan with Ireland skipper Rory Best. Picture: Billy Stickland.

We are not long away from accepting that maybe the World Cup is just not for us, the way a middle-aged bachelor might come to accept he will never marry.

As we wave off another batch of muscled young hopefuls, we suppress our secret fears of what might happen this time. Who will have their hamstrings ripped from the bone while poised to score a match-winning try?

Which perfectly drilled aspect of our set piece will, suddenly and without explanation, start to malfunction, allowing a bemused Russian front rower a 60-yard run-in to the line? Will Keith Earls choke on a piece of tuna nigiri? Will Iain Henderson get locked for six weeks in a capsule hotel? How will Warren Gatland screw us over this time?

Anything could happen.

It is quite Irish to have these grim thoughts while at the same time being ranked number one in the world. But then we remember 2007 only too well. I was sent to Dublin Airport with a camera crew to cover the farewell that year. Wives and girlfriends were kissed, adoring fans were waved to, autographs were signed.

Not by me, by the players. Do keep up.

All was going well until I had to record a piece to camera. “And so, as the Irish team head off on their World Cup adventure” – an Aer Lingus flight soars overhead and the camera pans to your intrepid correspondent – “the question is, will they be checking the William Webb Ellis Cup into their luggage for their journey home?”

Ireland players and coach Joe Schmidt pose for a photo prior to the team’s departure from Dublin Airport in advance of the World Cup in Japan. Picture: David Fitzgerald.
Ireland players and coach Joe Schmidt pose for a photo prior to the team’s departure from Dublin Airport in advance of the World Cup in Japan. Picture: David Fitzgerald.

Hey, we all partied. It was the spirit of the time. So Ireland had not actually won the Six Nations at that point at all, had last won the old Five Nations back in 1985 and had little more than a handful of Triple Crowns and a shedload of Centenary Quaichs to our name?

In 2007, anything was possible. Longford pig farmers were borrowing millions to build gleaming office blocks in Granard. Why couldn’t we win the World Cup?

We all know what happened. Well, we still don’t actually know what happened. Something about being undercooked and having to stay in Bordeaux’s worst industrial estate. Or maybe the jerseys were too tight. Who knows?

He who doesn’t learn from history is doomed to repeat it, and we hoped that every subsequent World Cup disaster had built a store of knowledge and harsh experience that would make 2019 the year when it would all come together.

Joe Schmidt, after all, was the arch-strategist, the uber-control freak, the god within the details.

Everything since 2015 was planned for this moment, every centrally contracted muscle moved by an Irish player in the past four years had glory in Japan as its ultimate aim.

The Grand Slam annexed, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (twice!) beaten – all part of the globe-conquering masterplan.

We hoped, but, when it all started to go belly up, we weren’t terribly surprised. This was Ireland, in a World Cup year. Ruddy-faced young infantrymen being sent off to their inevitable doom, remember?

Battered by Wales and England (twice!). The Devin Toner situation, like a mighty oak being felled to put up some wind turbines. The fiasco of the squad announcement. It was all running out of control, and yet it all made sense in our weary, fatalistic Irish heads.

Or so it seemed. Suddenly, with the queue at the departure gates beginning to form, we got our shit together. You know that Dominic Cummings meme, Classic Dom, which greets every Boris Johnson blunder as if it were a strategic masterstroke by his sinister Svengali? We have Classic Joe.

Johnnie Sexton and members of the Irish Rugby team pictured this evening at Dublin Airport deaparting for the Rugby World Cup in Japan...Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Johnnie Sexton and members of the Irish Rugby team pictured this evening at Dublin Airport deaparting for the Rugby World Cup in Japan...Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

The Six Nations malfunction? Classic Joe.

Running the bollix off the lads in Portugal then sending them out to be mangled by England at Twickenham? Classic Joe.

Our reductive gameplan which hides the fact that we really have loads of surprise moves up our sleeves involving fake passports, tunnels and false moustaches which we will unleash when our World Cup opponents least expect it? Classic Joe.

So, our opponents skilfully misdirected, we managed to beat Wales twice and get to number one in the rankings.

And while everyone in world rugby rolled around on the floor, holding their sides, we took it for what is was.

The rankings may be calculated using some ancient Aztec mathematical formula that no one understands, but we can deduce from them that we are a pretty decent outfit, but one whose expectations are at a safe, gentle simmer.

And so off they go, Jonny Sexton packed up like an Elgin Marble in a crate marked ‘Fragile’, Jean Kleyn intently studying the words to Ireland’s Call, Rory Best hauling his weary bones onto one last charter trip for the cause.

As a cheesy TV reporter might say, watching them soar off eastwards, the sky is the limit.


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