From mediocrity to systems failure and, finally, heroism.
Strip away the emotion from yesterday’s epic and what does the latest November series of games actually tell us about this group of Irish players that we weren’t privy to when they first checked in to camp?
Truthfully, not a whole lot.
After over four hours of rugby, 142 points and a mountain of words both spoken and written, this Irish team remains an enigma, its true worth and capabilities unknown to most and none more so than themselves.
“I don’t know if we have learned a huge amount,” said Rob Kearney after this latest conundrum of an occasion. “You guys come down (to camp) and we tell you that if we play our best rugby we can beat any team in the world and it is not a party line that we throw out: it is something we genuinely believe.
“We played pretty well today for 50-60 minutes. Okay, we probably could have done a bit more in the end but … I haven’t learned that much from that 80-minute performance. I know what we can do as a team when we fulfil our potential. I know we can beat the best teams in the world. We came pretty close.”
In the space of three weeks, they have infuriated and enraptured in equal measure, damn near terrifying a side hungry to be the first to record a 100% win ratio for the first time in the professional era and imploding against an Aussie team that is good but far from great.
Against Samoa, Ireland managed both: an obscenely dull first-half that was only partially redeemed by a second period of aesthetically pleasing stuff against a Samoan side that greeted their Jekyll and Hydes with equal listlessness.
Ireland, since the 2009 Grand Slam, have morphed into that unpredictable guy at the house party — you just can’t tell if he’s going to pick up the guitar and wow the room or reach for a baseball bat and wreck it. It’s been an Olympic cycle of the same now. No-one can seriously doubt the potential of the national team. The ‘Golden Generation’ that claimed a trio of Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam is only a handful of retirements from history but the baton has been picked up time and again by younger men.
Ireland have shown with the evisceration of England at the Aviva two years ago, that frustrating draw in Paris in 2011, the defeat of Australia in Eden Park and the first-half against Wales earlier this year what they are capable of.
You just never can tell when to expect it.
Yesterday’s effort did nothing but add another layer of corroborative evidence to that line of thinking and even Kearney couldn’t explain for sure if Ireland’s Herculean effort was one chiefly predicated on the failures and disappointment of the Wallabies outing.
“That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? We weren’t there mentally last week. You have to take into consideration as well that the margins in these games are tiny. Okay, we were a fair bit off last week and Australia were pretty good. You just have to look to last year in New Zealand and the difference between Tests two and three and the stark contrast there but the important thing is that we have to remember that there is a benchmark there from today.
“There is a bar there. We are not going to get to that level every single week because it would be pretty difficult to do that but we have to be coming pretty close and anything compared to last week isn’t good enough.”
We have another 11 weeks now to expound and theorise as to where the spirit bubble really lies with a side that can feel thieved of victory against New Zealand after sinking without trace against Australia eight days before.
Had Ireland held on yesterday, the sense of helplessness in defining this group would have made for an even more perplexing task — though one eased by the sight of history being made — and Kearney’s talk of margins is probably worth heeding.
Had Jonathan Sexton been a metre to the left with that kick…
“Obviously, as players we will never ever criticise one of our kickers because it is probably one of the hardest jobs that they have to do and it was a massive pressure kick for him. Plus he was carrying a bit of a knock. Had we got that kick maybe it would have been very different and, as I say, it was probably a bit of a lifeline for them but we still should have held them out.”
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