BRENDAN O'BRIEN: ‘Almost’ won’t do any more — it’s time we finished the job

Sometimes, Monday morning dawns, and with it an almost fully-formed pitch for these Friday musings.

Other times, you find yourself scratching around desperately for inspiration or something equating with its distant cousin late on a Thursday afternoon. Then there are those weeks when you are bombarded with hints before the penny drops.

So it was this week.

It started with a friend’s Facebook post after Ireland’s 13-10 loss to England in Twickenham last Saturday, the long and the short of it being that the national rugby team had just provided further evidence for his long-held view that they have almost always failed to get the job done when it mattered most.

A sports journalist himself, he has frequently tut-tutted about what he believes to be the free pass the squad has been given in the press despite these supposed shortcomings, but it was only on Tuesday night when a recording of the 2007 documentary about Eddie O’Sullivan’s side, Reaching for Glory: Inside Irish Rugby was viewed that the idea began to germinate.

A fascinating insight into the team’s season, that documentary captured one of the most momentous years in Irish rugby, one which encapsulated defeats of South Africa and Australia, the historic first games in Croke Park, the playing of God Save the Queen and a Triple Crown.

Like any good production, it had its villain too. His name was Vincent Clerc. You’ll remember it now, the late restart bouncing off the hands of a clutch of forwards and into the wide open spaces where France punched into the Irish 22 and Mr Clerc flew over the line. Ultimately, that denied Ireland a Grand Slam and championship title.

“People talk about the bounce of the ball but we just didn’t play for the full 80 minutes and that’s a lesson we will have to learn going forward,” said the always straight-as-a-die Ronan O’Gara, whose penalty just moments before Clerc’s score had given Ireland a four-point lead.

Seven years on, and Ireland still haven’t learned that lesson.

In the last four seasons, the national side featured in 19 Test matches decided by seven points or less. 14 of them have been lost. 14! Two more were drawn against France. The three wins were claimed against the USA, Italy and Scotland. Yippee-do. Time and again they have pushed the game’s best sides to the edge and been the ones to fall off.

Every one of the other Six Nations and all three of the major southern hemisphere sides have gone eyeball to eyeball with Ireland down the stretch and watched as Ireland blinked first.

Put last Saturday’s three-point loss, and the defeat to New Zealand last November, in that context and maybe there is something to be said for a more hard-hitting analysis.

Those 14 losses have come in all shapes, sizes and stadiums. Ireland were caught on the line in some, fell short in stirring comebacks in others and been stuck in a stalemate with the French twice, when victories were all but in the can. These failures encompass Six Nations, November internationals, summer tours and World Cup warm-ups held in eight countries and two continents.

It just isn’t acceptable.

As for the reasons why, in this instance it is hard to say.

Is it mental? It is physical? Are Ireland simply not as good as we think we are, or as our provincial results in the Pro12 and Heineken Cup suggest? Is it to do with our relative lack of physique at Test level? Is the IRFU’s player welfare programme leaving our elite gun-shy when it matters most? Who can say?

The inescapable conclusion is this generation of Irish players have forgotten how to win big games. When the crunch comes, they buckle. Ask the elder statesmen such as Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell if one championship title in the past decade is sufficient reward for their talents and the answer will be a grouchy negative.

Maybe this makes it better or maybe it just adds to the pain but it wasn’t always like this. Between 2002 and 2009 — all but the final campaign of which came under O’Sullivan’s watch — Ireland played 22 times when the final margin was a converted try or less. 16 were won. The zenith came in Declan Kidney’s first year when England, Scotland and Wales were all edged out by a combined 10 points and France bettered by a mere nine.

“Every time you win, you’re reborn,” said the Hall of Fame American football coach George Allen once. “When you lose, you die a little.”

Ireland have died in painful circumstances far too often this last four years. It’s high time they gave birth to a different kind of streak.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob


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