Sergio Parisse has nothing much to show for 16 years of international rugby beyond a global admiration for his gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds.
The Italian who could lay justifiable claim to having been the best No.8 of his generation has a fair few wooden spoons, enough to keep the home fires burning but then they come with the territory, a bit like George Best when he played for the North, only worse.
Winning the Six Nations has never been a viable proposition for Parisse, let alone a Grand Slam.
In his first full year of Test rugby, James Ryan achieved both.
Beating the Wallabies in a Test series in Australia has never been an option for Italy. As for outpointing the All Blacks? impossible. James Ryan did both in a matter of months, again with a little help from his friends.
Below Test level, Parisse’s long stint with Stade Francais amounts to one French title and two losing European Cup finals, in 15 seasons.
James Ryan won the Champions’ Cup in Bilbao last May and the PRO14 in Dublin a fortnight later, in the blue of Leinster.
In a year when Ryan went from novice to superstar, Parisse paid the inevitable price for continuing to man the barricades on behalf of the Azzurri.
He lost a Test match for the 100th time, out of 134, figures which give a whole new meaning to the first three words of the second verse of Fratelli d’Italia: Where is victory?
Comparisons are often odious, never more so in this case but the fact of the matter is that Ryan has lost just one international, out of 13.
Ireland’s towering lock would never dream of tempting fate by daring to think about it but until recently the only question hanging over his career could also have been compressed into three words: Where is defeat?
He had to go all the way to Melbourne to discover what it meant and how it felt, a blip to which the Grand Slammers responded by resuming normal service over successive weekends in Melbourne and Sydney. Ryan’s only abnormal experience, in France where To Lose lived up to its name in the Champions’ Cup, leaves him with a win-loss record of 34-2.
For a player of his monumental stature, Parisse has been subjected to the repeated cruelty of spending far too much time lining up on his own try-line waiting for the other lot to convert a try, a default position which cropped up nine times on his debut, as an 18-year-old in New Zealand.
Ryan’s start could scarcely have been much more rewarding, off the beaten track in New Jersey for Ireland’s second string against the USA. He entered the Red Bull Arena in the 60th minute, scored a try in the 61st and has since stampeded through every major challenger on the planet.
Capped for his country before Leinster got round to doing the same, Ryan and Parisse are due to collide in Rome for Round 3 of the Six Nations on February 24, another staging post to the World Cup. It will be the new Irish giant’s first, the battered old Italian master’s fifth.
For Ryan and everyone else in the Ireland squad, all roads next year lead to a place far beyond Rome, Yokohama on November 2.
As the No.2 team in the official rankings, Ireland going all the way to the World Cup final is not an unreasonable goal.
At least Parisse will not be burdened by the demands of an expectant public, not with New Zealand and South Africa swimming in the same pool. He could be forgiven for wondering what he’s done to offend the gods, why after suffering so nobly for so long in the Italian cause his last World Cup should be crushed beneath so many boulders. Ryan has the whole world in his hands, player of the year from the team of the year.
Time for Ireland to step out of their global darkness
The date and place has long vanished into the mists of time: May 25, 1987, Wellington, New Zealand. Even those of us who witnessed Ireland’s debut at the World Cup have probably done our collective best to forget it beyond the occasional boast along the lines of: “Were you there when they played ‘The Rose of Tralee’?”
For reasons too convoluted to go into, each team had to have a song other than their national anthem, a sort of signature tune. At a time when they were wrestling with more pressing matters like the health of their coach, the late Mick Doyle, the Irish management understandably overlooked the substitute anthem and sent a gopher out to scour the record shops of New Zealand’s capital and come back with something suitable.
As one of those who standing to attention when a crackly recording rang out on the tannoy, the Lions wing Trevor Ringland remembers it well. “There are many songs which make you feel like laying down your life for,” he said. “But a scratchy recording of ‘The Rose of Tralee’ is not one of them.”
On a day desperately short of inspiration, Ireland went down without a fight, 13-6 to Wales, just a matter of weeks after beating them at Cardiff Arms Park in the last match of that season’s Five Nations.
Like their one-off song, Ireland under Donal Lenihan were not heard of again as contenders at the inaugural World Cup. They were counted out at the quarter- final stage, a consistency matched at just about every subsequent World Cup with depressing regularity.
History even repeated itself at another Wellington quarter-final in 2011, the Ireland of O’Driscoll, O’Connell, O’Gara et al eliminated by a supercharged Welsh.
Six losing-quarter finals, one losing quarter final play-off and, in 2007, the ultimate indignity of being knocked out before the knock-out stage.
In terms of paying their dues, nobody can have paid that many for that long. If only it were that simple but, there will never be a better time for the champions of Europe to step out of their global darkness than next autumn in the Land of the Rising Sun.
As for the rest of my wish list for 2019, here goes:
Action, long overdue, to make the game safer without neutering its physicality. A tricky matter but one which has to be tackled in the face of recurring tragedy. Nicolas Chauvin’s death after breaking his neck in a youth match for Stade Francais has been described as a tragic accident.
But three in one year? Aurillac centre Louis Fajfrowski died in the dressing room after injuring himself in a tackle during a pre-season match against Rodez in August. A 17-year-old injured in an amateur match in May died the next day from a brain haemorrhage.
Having picked the 2023 World Cup out of Irish pockets, Bernard Laporte is about as popular in these parts as Jose Miserinhou is around Old Trafford but the French President deserves praise for his reaction to Chauvin’s passing.
He is promoting a two-day global conference in Paris in March on player safety.
Laporte has called for tackles above waist high to be outlawed along with double tackles. At least one neurosurgeon will welcome the move, Professor Jean Chazal who said: “Should we wait for a death on the pitch to really take the necessary measures?”
The cost of missed calls
If he didn’t know at the time, Robert Baloucoune knows now that he should have been given the earliest of early baths in Belfast last week. His escape with a yellow card within five seconds or so of his Ulster debut is the latest example of a disciplinary system brought into recurring disrepute.
Players are cited for offences demanding a straight red. Baloucoune is the 20th to be so charged this season, on top of more than 50 cases last season. Nobody expects a referee to see everything but too many are missing too much.
It’s not as if they lack support, not with two assistants running touch and the TMO with the all-seeing technology at his disposal. Retrospective justice is better than none but there is nothing to beat justice done at the time, as Munster know to their cost. And who scored the try that put the Ulster match beyond their reach? Robert Baloucoune.
A New Year’s plea to World Rugby chiefs
And finally: Will someone please put the ball in straight and feed the scrum the way the law says it has to be fed? In the probability of that being dismissed as a cry in the wilderness from a dinosaur, then a question for World Rugby: Why allow a law to be flouted on such an embarrassing scale and maintain the pretence of keeping it in the book?