While it’s a time for some humility in Irish rugby, it is not a time for catastrophising. Honest self-reflection is required but not self-flagellation, suggests Kieran Shannon.
It could be worse, I suppose. Irish rugby could be Scottish rugby, that once-proud institution that many delighted in beating 20 years ago next February when Ronan O’Gara and a handful of other young guns came along to imbue an Irish team with the necessary class and daring to trump the Scots for the first time in 12 years.
O’Gara himself though characteristically aspires to something higher, which is why he feels his morale and standing as an Irish rugby man couldn’t be much lower among his international peers these days.
In an interview on Virgin Media Sport earlier this week, he candidly spoke about how another dismal World Cup performance by his nation had “hit him hard”.
“I think you lose a lot of credibility in the fact that you go well in a Six Nations but… what we are essentially judged on us is the Rugby World Cup,” he’d say. “And for all of us, me working in France, you just can see people looking at you differently.”
It’s quite the image, the normally unflinching O’Gara looking sheepish around the company of people whose own national team didn’t make it past the quarter-finals either, and hadn’t the consolation of winning a single Six Nations championship title, let alone three, over the past six seasons.
But O’Gara would only have been too aware of how aware they were of having one — actually, several — over Ireland at a time like this.
France are one of just five rugby nations to have reached a World Cup final, and for good measure, have played on that stage not just once or twice but thrice. We haven’t even made a semi-final.
Yet if there’s one place where it’s even more challenging to be an Irish rugby person than a pro dressing room in France then it’s back home in Ireland.
O’Gara knows the dark humour that could pervade the old Munster dressing room — after the disastrous World Cup campaign of 2007, the late great Anthony Foley greeted him and the rest of the campaign’s returning heroes with the brilliantly cutting and prophetic text: “Ye’re not the first Irish team to bring disgrace on the nation and ye won’t be the last.”
But that’s merely slagging. Among the wider public in this social media age, members of the Irish rugby community have been subject to sheer derision. This is Rugby Country? A Team of Us? Really?
If anything though, a look at the coaching booths in Japan last weekend offered several reminders of Ireland’s standing in world rugby.
Always exuding a sense of calm and control was Rassie Erasmus, masterminding the Springboks’ latest capture of the Webb Ellis. By his side was Jacques Nineaber, his defence coach. Just behind them was Felix Jones. All were coaching Munster a little over two years — last week marked the second anniversary of Erasmus’s last game in charge at Thomond Park.
Just as Munster had sufficient credibility to draw a coach of Erasmus’s standing, the magnitude of his job there had sufficient weight for him to be appointed the most important coaching figure in a country with a tradition of winning World Cups. Unless you’re Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, you tend to only get big gigs by previously doing big gigs. In world club rugby, there are fewer bigger than Munster.
And yet as we know, they’re no longer even the kingpins of Irish club rugby. Only once over the past 11 years have they had a more successful season than Leinster.
The past month multiple theories have been floated about another premature Irish exit from the World Cup, including one from Eamon Dunphy inferring James Ryan and colleagues may have been living too cosseted an existence; that “when you get in among the streetfighters, you don’t know what to do because you’ve been cruising along Dublin 4!”
Since breaking into the Leinster team though, Ryan has only once known what it’s like not to win a European Champions Cup. And that sensation he only came to experience in the final itself, having dogged out wins in places like Bath and Wasps, just as he’d prevailed against streetfighters in the south of France and indeed Australia and London with Ireland the year before.
While there was some merit to Dunphy’s thesis — that rugby has to spread its playing base — it’s not as if Ryan and his colleagues have lived a cossetted rugby existence.
Six of the past 14 European Heineken/Champions Cups have been won by Irish clubs. Of the eight that weren’t, only twice did neither Munster nor Leinster reach the semi-final stage. You have to have plenty of streetfighters to keep scrapping to big stages like that.
Nor should we totally dismiss any past or future international series of games. Yeah, some people might have got a little carried away claiming either of Ireland’s wins in 2016 or 2018 against the All Blacks was “the greatest achievement ever in Irish sport”. But both wins were a big deal. The reason why Ireland had never beaten New Zealand before was because — for the All Blacks — every match is a big deal.
They were more than just friendlies, just as next year’s games against Japan, Australia, and South Africa will be, though Ireland should be mindful that, just like the Boks were when losing 38-3 to us in the Aviva two years ago this week, that there’s a bigger goal further down the line.
Irish rugby has quite a challenge ahead of itself in the coming months. As O’Gara has pointed out, a forensic review should be conducted so past mistakes don’t recur. But it should also be measured.
While it’s a time for some humility, it is not a time for catastrophising. Honest self-reflection is required but not self-flagellation.
Only a month after enduring another World Cup exit, this time against Wales, O’Gara and team-mates like Paul O’Connell were back at it for Munster in a Heineken Cup group match in Northampton. On 80 minutes they were trailing by a point. But they’d stick at it; the streetfighters in them refused to quit. And, as we now know, six minutes and 41 phases later, O’Gara drop-kicked a goal to secure Munster another win and for him personally “as good a buzz as I’ve ever had in my life”.
Munster didn’t go on to win that Heineken Cup campaign — Leinster would. But it still provided one of our greatest sportsmen with that buzz, just as it provided us with one at the time and a memory that still endures.
The weekend after next, the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton will go at it again in the European Cup, even though, like O’Gara knew eight years ago, they’ve probably played their last World Cup. And maybe there or some other time over the winter they’ll provide themselves and us with another Northampton moment.
At the very least there’ll be evenings they’ll preoccupy and warm us while we hover by the fire or keep an eye on the screen in some bar. This may never be Rugby Country but it is now entering into Rugby Season.
And that’s something to enjoy, not deride.