YOU’D often wonder, do some of Ireland’s teenage and early-20s fans know how lucky they are? The team’s season has been about average so far: two wins, a draw and a loss. Yet we still travel to Twickenham expecting victory on Saturday.
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Since England won the World Cup in 2003, Ireland have played them nine times and won seven of these encounters.
A quick glance at the numbers and you realise that this kind of sequence should not happen. According to the IRB, there are 1,428,862 male rugby players in England. Ireland have less than 10% of their playing resources (140,716 players) but have won 78% of the recent meetings. This is a phenomenal record.
There was a time, not long ago, when England were the sum of their parts. Take the nine games before Ireland’s dominance of their bigger rival. England won eight of those, included were a couple of horror beat-downs – 50-18 in 2000 and 6-46 in 2003’s Grand Slam decider.
Statisticians would say England, given their depth, should beat Ireland nine times out of 10. Optimistic – and perhaps spoilt-by-recent-success – Ireland fans now expect us to beat England as a matter of course.
I don’t see myself as spoilt – I’m old enough to remember standing on the South Terrace as Ireland’s 17-3 defeat of England in 1993 sparked wild scenes because we’d just ended another depressing sequence – but I do expect us to beat England in most things, most of the time.
The reason for this is removed from statistics, although the consequences can be seen in the numbers.
England, as a nation, is in a dark place.
This is the country that gave the world a generous slice its greatest popular literature and music. This is still a fertile land for creative people; the only problem is that the genuinely creative people – the spiky individualists, the slightly eccentric but brilliant innovators – are being pushed further and further towards the margins.
If every nation gets the politicians it deserves then the monochrome David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Milliband fit the bill. The electorate are extremely unlikely to have choice between conviction politicians like Michael Foot and Margaret Thatcher again. Whatever your view of this pair, at least you know what they stood for.
If the political landscape is flat, the musical outlook is equally bleak. Where is the next great British band to inspire a new generation of kids? Unsigned and uploading free songs to the internet I’d wager, while Coldplay continue to live down to their billing as the Tim Henman of Rock.
Liam Gallagher put it best about Coldplay: if they weren’t in a band they’d have great jobs anyway.
There’s a jam of middle-of-the-road careerists out there across the disciplines, blocking the progress of people who can actually make things happen.
Clive Woodward might not be the easiest guy to deal with but he changed the culture of English rugby and led them to World Cup glory. These days, before beating France, England celebrated a tryless home defeat to Wales as a good day at the office; you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, eh.
Woodward could have been persuaded to return to the RFU at various stages of the past five years, but various empty suits would rather not have the hassle of dealing with an agitating winner. They want someone who will tow the political line, and preferably win lots of games too. They will never even begin to understand how this is not possible.
In Ireland we are not immune to progressing nonentities either but, thank God, a lot of the people who make the decisions are able to see through the spin.
Declan Kidney does not look or sound the part of an international rugby coach. Yet, despite some recent criticism, he has proved himself over his career to be razor-sharp judge of the game. Were he English, I doubt he’d have got the top job at Twickenham. It would have to be a venerable foreigner, and over-hyped ex-player with no managerial pedigree or a trusted inside man promoted from the officer class.
Declan Kidney, though, has one quality you need: a near obsession with rugby. He seems to have been a fairly uninspiring teacher in Pres, Cork. By all accounts he was the complete opposite as a rugby coach.
One of my friend’s older brothers was a half-decent player as a youngster and his coach, Kidney, would call around and spend ages talking rugby with his dad. He did the same in many other houses. You could fill several books with similarly low-key anecdotes detailing Kidney’s dedication to sport. Teaching wasn’t his calling, rugby coaching was, and still is.
That passion: that will to play, to coach, to talk and, most importantly, to think deeply about the game is what matters. What doesn’t matter is how you sound after the game in front of the cameras or how you are the opposite of the last guy who didn’t excel in the job.
So long as Ireland are still picking key men like Kidney for the right reasons, I’d favour us to prevail over a team that is a manifestation of where a county has gone wrong.
Ireland, France, Wales, Scotland – they all look upon the men in white as the old enemy. England, for their part, never quite seemed sure who to reward with the ultimate compliment of equal enmity. In recent years, it seems, they’ve decided to take their eye off all these rivalries and instead become their own most formidable opponent.
Don’t be duped by England’s false spring in Paris, this Saturday they will get back to doing what has become their custom: defying logic by losing to a team which should beat them just once a decade.