ONE WEEK in June tells you most of what you need to know about the Ireland rugby team.
On Saturday the 16th, our men faced New Zealand. Few dared to hope for anything more flattering than a moderately humiliating outcome. We had, after all, lost by 32 points to the same opponents the previous Saturday.
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But the 12/1 outsiders made the odds seem ridiculous. It took a last-minute Dan Carter drop-goal to sink the underdogs. The 22-19 defeat was the closest Ireland came to beating the All Blacks since the teams drew 10 points apiece in 1973.
So hope surged in advance of the following Saturday’s test in Hamilton. Could we beat them for the first ever time?
To win games you have to score more than zero points. Ireland couldn’t manage that, while New Zealand ran in 60.
Among the many excuses put forward for the capitulation, two were most often repeated: NZ were below par previously so were always going to respond with a big performance; the crushing loss came at the end of an attritional 50-week season for Ireland’s player… tiredness caught them.
These factors are valid but hardly go the distance when trying to explain the dramatic extent of Ireland’s regression. In seven days, the side went from trading blow-for-blow with the world champions to suffering a record defeat.
The fact is, rather than a freak result that came against the planet’s best team when we were at our most jaded, the 57-point swing over a week is the most stark example of an established trend: Ireland are maddeningly incapable of performing to their optimum level in consecutive matches.
You have to go back to September 2011 for Ireland’s last win over a high-ranking side. Australia were bested in the group stages of the World Cup, 15-6. A couple of facile wins over Russia and Italy later, our next serious opponents were Wales in the quarter final. We lost 22-10.
March 2011 and a 24-8 domination of England was followed up by four straight defeats against Scotland, France (twice) and England in the run-up to the World Cup.
And, as sure as daybreak follows darkness, we produced our best form against the Aussies when the team was written off; the hindrance of expectation non-existent.
So, what we have is a team estranged from the concept of consistency — pretty much since the Grand Slam was won in 2009. It is often overlooked, however, that Ireland stumbled over the line against Wales and a weak England outfit that season.
Look at the Heineken Cup roll of honour since 2006, or indeed the final tables of the Celtic League. Our provinces’ excellence has become a matter of routine but once these professionals swap red, blue or white shirts for green then they soon become distressingly erratic.
Coach Declan Kidney has borne most of the criticism for Ireland’s inability to transfer club form into the international realm. Leinster’s Joe Schmidt, we are told, would introduce a more exciting and effective style of play to the national side if appointed.
We should remember, though, that Kidney ascended to power behind similar sentiments: his Munster outfit had won two of the previous three Heineken Cups and he had the know-how to turn Eddie O’Sullivan’s team of World Cup flops into a genuine force.
He delivered on that promise initially but once the relationship was consummated with that first-year Slam, Ireland reverted to the familiar.
It is entirely likely Ireland would enjoy a similar spike in form under Schmidt but, once the novelty waned, would again become consistently inconsistent.
The current coach is paid well to bear responsibility for results. If things don’t improve — Ireland’s record in 2012 is won two, drawn one and lost five — then he will be forced out.
I don’t think he should be. Kidney has proved himself to be an excellent coach over a long period of time. Success with Pres in Cork led to his stewardship of Ireland’s under-19 World Cup triumph in 1998. Since then he has been to four Heineken Cup finals with Munster, winning two before taking Ireland to a first Grand Slam since 1948. I don’t think he’s forgotten how to do his job.
What makes his job hard is the attitude of the players towards the Irish jersey.
The boom in provincial rugby has come at a cost. The rivalry between our teams, especially Leinster and Munster, has wrought subtle divisions in the international set-up.
Lip service is forever paid to the fact that the Irish camp is a happy one … Club rivalries are put aside when Ireland calls …
That rings false. A happy team is a high-performing, resilient team — not one that drops the head when the heat is turned up at Twickenham or Hamilton.
The frequency and ferocity of club derby games means small resentments have festered and become exacerbated. Under pressure, in the big international tests, these fissures can’t take the strain.
Not for a moment are we suggesting that Ireland should match the dominance of the provinces in Europe. International rugby is a more exacting realm and, because our best players are concentrated in three teams, we can get a false reading of our status when they do so well.
All we want is for the Ireland players to recognise that they need to produce their best form when playing for their nation, not one corner of the island. A Heineken Cup medal is a fine achievement, though next to a Grand Slam or qualification for a World Cup semi-final it is fool’s gold.
If our players perform to their ability, consistently, I believe they can be a top-four team.
Only with a change in outlook will they hit the mark they are capable of hitting and, crucially, stay there Test after Test.