FIVE-FOOT weeds are rooted in the carless driveways of ghost estates; white for sale signs slowly turn the colour of exhaust fumes; auctioneers hammers need but one coat of varnish every five years so seldom do they fall. Yes, the Irish property market continues its dive, but there’s one corner of the country where prices remain at boom-high level. That place is to the north-east of Maynooth.
Ireland may be a damp old field, but the leather-skinned residents of this part of Co Kildare enjoy a micro-climate akin to that of the Nevada desert. If this sounds far-fetched, like the last desperate pitch of a broken estate agent, then look no further than the Ireland rugby team for evidence. They train on the scorched earth of Carton House’s sports campus. On St Patrick’s Day, in Twickenham, they did what would have to be an implausibly good impression of a bunch of lads who had never seen a wet rugby ball before.
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For 80 excruciating minutes they fumbled, spilled, dropped and knocked-on time and again, while their neighbours, from ostensibly dryer climes, somehow managed to hold on to the egg for long enough to amass 30 points. Oh, to be in sunny Maynooth.
Seventeen errors weren’t pretty. More unsightly was the manner in which the Ireland scrum was walked backwards by the English eight. Replacement tight-head Tom Court has endured a barrage of criticism for this. The only place some want to see the Ulsterman in a green shirt again is on a distant-future episode of Reeling in the Years… Remember this calamity?
Court had a dreadful game, but we’re not going to add another small kick to the stampede. On a human level, it was impossible not to feel for the guy. Here was a professional humiliation, writ before a live audience of 81,782 and a multiple of that number on television. The prop looked as if he’d gladly swap Twickenham for the waterboarding department of Guantanamo Bay on Saturday. It’s not the converted loose-head’s fault that he isn’t a first-rate international tight-head.
The Brisbane native wasn’t trying to mess up; he was trying desperately hard not to mess up.
Likewise, Tomás O’Leary didn’t carry the ball over the line which led to the penalty try on purpose. Nor did he kick to touch on the full, twice, deliberately. Nor did he mean to launch a pass at Sean O’Brien’s head like a rioter firing a burning bottle at a police cordon.
The scrum-half practises hard at Carton House, perhaps in the back of his mind thinking he’d be better off swinging the ash in rebel red were it not for the opportunity to earn a living from sport.
Mistakes, of which there were plenty, can be forgiven. After the initial burst of frustration, no fair-minded supporter holds a grudge against a fella on his team for getting something wrong. All they ask is that their side give it everything and never surrenders. And that is where this team let people down last weekend.
In Twickenham, against England, on Paddy’s Day, they gave up the chase with 10 minutes to go. The ship sank to the deafening silence of no guns being fired. That’s what really stings. While Ireland waited for the final whistle and the respite of the dressing room, England were allowed to approach the finishing tape while throwing shapes to the jubilating masses. Even Ben Youngs scored a try!
This isn’t a good England team. Last week we said they were the sporting manifestation of a nation in thrall to mediocrity. No apologies will be forthcoming. England are not the England of 2003, the last white-shirted XV to inflict a heavy defeat on Ireland. This England are nothing to fret about: they are a PR machine with a rugby team attached. The message is: we’re a humble wholesome lot, in no way interested in throwing dwarves around or leaping off moving ferries. And we’re getting better every day.
The piety is nauseating. Almost as nauseating as the way Ireland allowed a team, who couldn’t put a backs move together if they were playing a sevens team on a six-mile wide pitch, to lord it over them in the finishing stages.
In and around Twickenham afterwards and in the bars later on, that’s what baffled the followers. We all know our team are inconsistent, but one thing we don’t associate with them is capitulation to England.
Not since the 2007 World Cup have an Irish side put in such an inept performance. They’ll return to their provinces now and probably do what has become habit — play better in blue or red or white than they do in green. The odds of an Irish side winning the Heineken Cup for the fifth time since 2006 are short, but another club medal won’t distract from the fact that the most vaunted sports professionals in the country let the flag fall here.
The onus is on them to put this right. A reverse of this scoreline in 12 months would be nice, but it’s not a requirement. An ability to play with a wet ball and to scrummage would be nice, but they are not requirements either.
What is required is to keep going, keep on firing to the bitter finish and to remember that, for them, primary colours are not red or blue, but green.