The Match: Ireland 21 South Africa 23, 6 November 2010
What it Defined: Ireland’s inability to build on the 2009 Grand Slam
The State of Play
Following Ireland’s miracle 2009 – Grand Slam in the locker, plethora of Lions selections, out-muscling of the Springboks, zero defeats – it was inevitable that they wouldn’t maintain that standard.
In the following year’s Six Nations, Ireland’s efforts were considered a failure by the standards they had set for themselves over previous years. In a season when you visit Paris and London, three wins is par, but when one of your defeats is at home to a previously-winless Scotland in a game you were playing to win the Triple Crown, it puts a different spin on things.
There were three notable take-aways from the championship, and the most important was last – in that Scotland game we saw the first glimpse of Ireland throwing the ball laterally across the line for little gain. Going wide at every opportunity now seemed to be in vogue, but Ireland appeared to have little idea of what to do with the ball. In the Scotland game, the Jocks couldn’t believe their luck, and dominated the breakdown. Previous to this, there were commendable efforts to expand the gameplan, and Ireland had no problem scoring tries – 11 in total, and 3 each for Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. However, most of the scores were off first phase set-piece ball, and you got the impression these moves would eventually be found out.
Secondly, the back and forth switching between Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton started. ROG started the first two games, then Sexton the next three (after Sexton finished the November internationals as incumbent). This, amazingly, continued for the two years up to and including the World Cup – the lack of clarity in a key position seemed indicative of a drift in purpose.
Thirdly, Ireland’s rock solid discipline from 2009 (apart from the Wales game) was showing signs of breaking down. In Paris, Ireland had somehow withstood a furious start from the French to still be in the game when Jerry Flannery aimed a reckless fly-hack at Alexis Pallison – he somehow avoided a red card, but Ireland conceded two tries with him in the bin, where he joined Cian Healy who had already seen yellow for a shameless and lazy tug on Morgan Parra.
In their home games against Wales and Scotland, Ireland repeatedly gave away penalties. It took until very late to put Wales away as Stephen Jones hoovered up three-point opportunities, then, in the Scotland game, Dan Parks punished repeated offending to kick Scotland to victory – the mindless boos surrounding his winning kick encapsulated a frustrating campaign.
That June, Ireland went to the Southern Hemisphere to play New Zealand, NZ Maori and Oz. They lost all three games, but it wasn’t a tour wasted. A horrendous sequence of injuries meant a raft of young and up-and-coming players got gametime - and most did well for themselves – even Ed O’Donoghue. Okay, maybe not Ed O’Donoghue, but the point stands.
In the New Zealand test, Ireland were reduced to 14 men after 10 minutes and were 31 points down at half-time. Yet, in a contrast to this years Hamilton test, they rallied and ended up scoring 4 tries; only the second time NZ have conceded 4 in their last 50 games (the other being the Bledisloe Cup game in HK last summer). Then Australia had great difficulty in shaking off the tourists in the final game, winning by 7 after trailing for much of the frst half.
Ireland may have gone 0-3, but it looked like they had engineered a good position to build upon after a difficult, but ultimately fruitful, tour. They also looked to be finding their feet with regard to the ‘new game’. Kidney and Kiss talked about rugby being a ‘game of keep-ball’ and of defending the ‘two-second ruck’.
Next year, Leinster started the season like Thomas the Tank Engine with three defeats from four (the time Joe Schmidt lost the dressing room according to G. Hook), but were building up to Stephenson’s Rocket by the time the November series rolled up – they had started the HEC in seriously formidable fashion, and Tullow man Sean O’Brien and the finally fit Mike Ross had been hugely impressive. The series would be Ireland’s first in the spanking new Palindrome, but the Old Farts had disastrously misread the rugby public – obscenely expensive packaged tickets put off many punters, and the opening game, against a Springbok side itching for revenge following a series of defeats to Ireland, was far from a sell-out.
The Irish media, meanwhile, were delighted with themselves – there was nary a dissenting voice – Ireland would comfortably dispatch an injury-hit South Africa and be all set for NZ 2 weeks later. Matty Williams has identified this as the point when Irish rugby got into the comfort zone – confidence turned to arrogance, and the need to constantly grow was left behind. At the time, this half of WoC (Egg) felt like Scrooge for doggedly insisting this South Africa team weren’t going to roll over and have their tummies tickled, but was in a small minority.
The alarm bells began to ring even louder when the Ireland selection was revealed – the message was clear – out with the new and in with the old. The tightheads were Mushy and Tom Court, tyro second rows Dan Tuohy and Devin Toner were ignored for O’Callaghan and Micko, and a woefully out-of-form Denis Leamy got picked on the bench ahead of O’Brien – Deccie was going with what he knew.
The tourists may have been missing the likes of Francois Steyn, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussouw, JP Pietersen and Fourie du Preez, but they came out strong and hungry – the Irish barely saw the ball for the first quarter, and when they did, were guilty of simple errors. One such was Eoin Reddan’s telegraphed pass off a line-out, which was snaffled up by the wily-but-not-exactly-Usain-Bolt Juan Smith for an intercept try from halfway.
Fly half Jonny Sexton’s radar wasn’t functioning for Ireland, in stark contrast to the metronomic Morne, and by the time Gio Aplon finished in the corner with 15 to go, Ireland were 23-9 down and looking well-beaten. To their credit, they took advantage of the Springboks taking their foot off the pedal, and substitute Radge inspired two late tries, and almost nailed the difficult conversion for the draw. However, it was too little too late, and a disappointing performance.
Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, B. O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Best, Buckley; O’Callaghan, M. O’Driscoll, Ferris, Wallace, Heaslip
South Africa: Aplon; Basson, Kirchner, de Villiers, Habana; M. Steyn, Pienaar; Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, J. du Plessis; Botha, Matfield; Stegmann, Smith, Spies
The game saw Ireland descend into the cycle of inconsistency, indecision and unclear gameplans which culminated in the Hamilton disaster.
The following week, back in the Aviva (someone had to pay for it!), Ireland struggled past Samoa – Sean O’Brien and Devin Toner, calling the lineouts on his debut, came into the side, but Ross sat it out again – John Hayes resuming familiar duty on the tighthead side. New Zealand completed a routine 20 point victory the next week, then Ireland had one of those nasty and mean-spirited Pumas games to round off the series – they won, but it’s difficult to look good when your opponents only want to fight. The series had left Ireland looking tired and devoid of inspiration, with the management seemingly hunkering down with the team as it was for the World Cup.
The 2011 Six Nations campaign started with a flirt with ignominy – Ireland deserved to lose in Rome, but were rescued by Mirco Bargamasco’s unreliable boot and some late poise from ROG. They lose at home to France, beat Scotland in a drudge-fest, then lost to Wales in one of the most mindless performances from Ireland in recent years – the ball was kicked away over 50 times, and they looked entirely devoid of attacking ideas. They conceded a try from a shocking piece of umpiring, but, to be truthful, they didn’t deserve to win. All of which left them needing to win at home to England to even get close to par for the tournament.
This was their best performance since the Springbok win in 2009 – full of poise, aggression and attacking intent. It looked like they had finally turned a corner and were moving forward again The early Mike Ross (now one of Deccie’s untouchables following Mushy’s inability to make it through 80 minutes in a Wolfhounds game) scrum followed by Sexton and Earls attack felt like a keystone moment. Allied to the form of Leinster in Europe, it seemed Ireland were going to approach the World Cup with a confident, heads-up approach.
It was better late than never, but it was hard not to be rueful of a missed opportunity. Ireland had left it until the last game of the series to get their best team on the pitch and by now frustration with Declan Kidney’s selection policy was in full swing. The way Ross and O’Brien went from being persona non grata in the Autumn to 80-minute key players spoke of a lack of joined-up thinking on behalf of the management. It was not as if they had not been on the radar in the Autumn – indeed, there was a loud clamour for both of them to be given proper exposure to test rugby, but it dadn’t happen. How could they have missed something so obvious – that Ross was vastly superior to Buckley, Court and Hayes in the key position of tighthead prop?
The World Cup turned out to be more of the same, confirming Ireland’s as a team which flatters to deceive, swinging from the sublime to the ridiculous in every series of games. From almost losing to Italy to spanking England in that tournament, in the World Cup warm-ups it was a desperate defeat to Scotland (admittedly with a scratch side) followed by nearly winning in Bordeaux.
In the tournament itself, Ireland failed to get a bonus point from the USA, then followed that up with a purposeful and aggressive destruction of Australia, Tri-Nations champions and one of the pre-tournament favourites, in Auckland. Ireland were blessed by good fortune with the conditions and injuries to the Australian pack, but it was a tactical masterclass. That was followed by yet more chopping and changing at out-half, and a smooth and smart win over Italy. Confidence was high going into the quarter-final against Wales, but Ireland flopped. O’Gara was in, and he had one of his worst days in green. Wales were wise to the ball-carrying of Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris and chopped them by the legs on the gain-line, and Ireland sank without trace in the second half.
A curate’s egg, then, no doubt about it – which was the real Ireland? The one who ruthlessly destroyed the Wallaby forwards, or the one swatted aside by (an admittedly top class) Wales? The sense of an opportunity of a lifetime passed up was (and is) strong – Wales went on to lose to an uninspired France side, who then put the heart across New Zealand, whose reponse to pressure was typically frenzied, albeit that they scraped over the line this time.
Perhaps the answers would come in 2012 – the coaching team got a re-jig, with a new three-pronged attack coach (mostly Les Kiss) replacing Gaffney, a new manager and Axel pinched from Munster for the injured Gert Smal. The attack functioned well enough after an inauspicious start, but Mick Kearney managed to alienate officialdom by implying they had no confidence in Wayne Barnes following his binning of Fez in the first game. Axel promised a fresh approach akin to that he had been working on in Munster, but lapsed into moaning about refs (a tiresome and increasingly desperate ploy from the Irish management) almost immediately.
Following a HEC campaign which saw three Irish provinces make the knock-out stages for the first time, confidence was high for the Six Nations. But the same problems remained – almost beating France in the re-fixed Stade game was merely a portend for a craven capitulation in Twickers where the lack of depth at tighthead was cruelly exposed by the English. By now every Kidney team selection was being greeted with howls of derision. It appeared the coach was ploughing on regardless – of the 19 players selected, all 4 changes were injury-enforced, with no tactical or rotational changes at all. Donncha O’Callaghan, who had fallen to 4th in the Munster lock pecking order, started every game. It was indicative of the lack of direction of the team and an increasingly embattled management team digging their heels further and further into the ground.
No-one will forget what happened after that - two Irish provinces made it to the HEC final, yet the national team performance graph was more volatile than ever, swinging from almost beating New Zealand in the Second Test with a display of calculated power and poise, to losing 60-0 a week later. Meanwhle, the coach cut a desolate figure, resorting to taking pot shots at Ulster over the lack of experience of the reserve tighthead, and hunkering down for his last year.
This is where Ireland are at now – a player group low on confidence, without a discernable medium-term plan and seemingly unimpressed with the coaching ticket. Yet it’s a player group high on skill, high on intelligence and heavy with medals. Scratching for 8th place in the world is not reflective of its ability. It’s a similar place to where they were when Deccie took over.
How can Ireland put the type of long-term structures in place to maximise achievement on the international stage? How can they move on from the boom-bust cycle, briefly punctured in 2007 and 2009, that has characterised the team since 2000? How can the governing authorities modernise the sport at national level, where the inaccessiblity and eye-scratching dross of the national team contrast sharply to the provinces, motivated as they are by the ruthlessly commercial and Darwinian HEC scene?
If this sounds like a lament for a lost lover, it should – after Ireland reached their pinnacle in 2009, they have generally flattered to deceive and are a teasing frustration for the fans. Someone needs to put a bit of sparkle into the national team.