Let’s be blunt: do you deserve to win when you fail to score in the entire second half and manage only three points in the last 60 minutes?
Has a country ever got so worked up about a friendly? It’s one of the great quirks and distinctions of rugby; virtually every international game matters.
In soccer, a November international might be a friendly. In rugby, as Richie McCaw pointed out, they’re called tests for a reason. There is no escape from intensity or scrutiny.
Last Sunday, a man who has won more European Cup medals than any other out-half missed a penalty in a game with no trophy or points at stake. It would be like Ryan Giggs missing a penalty in a friendly against Brazil; something he or the Welsh nation would get over very quickly. Getting over last Sunday is proving to be hard for the Irish nation, and it could be particularly hard for Johnny Sexton.
For now and for some time, and forever possibly in some quarters, he’s not a three-time Heineken Cup winner but the man who blew the chance for Ireland to finally beat the All Blacks.
What compounds the anguish is that there’s so little comfort in the positives. We’ve had superb Irish performances against the All Blacks before. This might be a new team being built but it was the last chance for the golden child of the golden generation. It might be only the third game under a new coach but it’s a too familiar old story. There was something novel about Gordon Hamilton and Michael Lynagh in Ireland v Australia 1991. Back then, even moral victories were novel; now it’s old hat. Even since winning the 2009 Grand Slam, there have been too many false dawns: winning in Twickenham only to blow the 2010 Triple Crown; beating Australia at the World Cup and then tripping up against the Welsh; not closing the deal in Paris and then in Christchurch in 2012; beating Wales in Cardiff in last year’s championship opener only to fail to win another game.
The word ‘deserve’ has been bandied about a lot since Sunday. The reflex retort to that is to cite Clint Eastwood’s line in Unforgiven, when he points his rifle at Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Dagget and grunts, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
But contrary to what Little Bill thought, he did deserve to go out like that; after all, hadn’t he made sure Morgan Freeman’s Ned had gone out a whole lot worse?
As the great college basketball coach Rick Pitino often says and Mickey Harte echoes, deserve usually has got everything to do with it.
You don’t deserve to win just because you’ve been playing a long time. And let’s be blunt: do you deserve to win when you fail to score in the entire second half and manage only three points in the last 60 minutes of a game? At some stage in their career, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll probably deserved to beat the All Blacks. But not this year. That effort was almost worthy of beating New Zealand but that 2013 Irish team wasn’t worthy of denying the greatest rugby team of all time in its greatest season.
Of course the team is entitled to empathy, especially Sexton. If you take a big kick or putt too quickly or too slowly from your normal routine, you usually miss. Did he choke? Possibly. Is he a choker? Definitely not. All the best have choked at some point. The All Blacks themselves, routinely, in a string of World Cups. Platini, Baggio, Zico, Messi and Ronaldo have all missed when faced with a huge deadball they or any elite forward would make nine times out of 10. And you’re particularly susceptible to choking when on the verge of a moment that will change your career.
Some people have said it’s simply unacceptable to miss such a big kick. What do they mean? That he should be shot? His old adversary and current mentor Ronan O’Gara missed big kicks, none bigger than in the Heineken Cup final in 2000. He’d reflect, “I knew I was going to spend some time living with The Kick. When people thought of me, they were going to think of it... Whatever I did in rugby or in life that kick was part of my story. How big a part? That was up to me. I was tormented for weeks but sport does that to you... You get on with it. I couldn’t ever take that kick again. I had to believe there would be other big days and other big kicks.”
So there would. He’d kick the drop-goal to win the 2009 Grand Slam — months before he’d face further anguish, giving away a rash penalty to probably cost the Lions a series in South Africa.
Sexton will live and cope with The Kick. There will be other big kicks. Yet probably outside of one to win the Grand Slam or reach a World Cup final, he will probably never get another chance to make such history in a green shirt again. A big one in Twickenham a couple of games into the Six Nations won’t quite compensate. That’s how big some November friendlies are.
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