Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Four

The Game: Ireland 14-10 Georgia, 15 September 2007

What it Defined: the decline of the Eddie O’Sullivan era and the 2007 World Cup catastrophe

The State of Play

Ireland are travelling to the world cup in rude health, with a fully fit squad and sky-high expectations.  In short, Irish rugby has never had it so good.  The team is settled and the age profile of the team is optimal, with all its key leaders in the 25-29 bracket.  They have played a lot of very good rugby over the previous twelve months.  In the November internationals they reach new peaks, comfortably beating South Africa and Australia and thrashing the Pacific Islands.  The Six Nations is thrilling, heartbreaking, but ultimately encouraging.  Ireland lose it on points difference to France, but most commentators agree Ireland are the best team in Europe.

Huge credit is given to (and lapped up by) their one-man-band of a coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.  Uninterested in delegating and something of a control freak, he has full control of all elements of the team.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the conditioning of the players, which has seen Ireland shed its long-held reputation as a 60-minute team.  Much is made of their visits to the cryotherapy chambers in Spala, Poland, where the players sit in sub-sub-zero temperatures for short periods of time, which improves the recovery speed of the muscles.  When a bunch of photographs of the players messing on the beach goes viral, the nation marvels at these specimens; tanned and toned, muscles rippling.  To reflect the coach’s achievements he is handed a four-year contract before the World Cup has even begun.

But there are a couple of problems looming, though nobody is overly concerned yet.  After the Six Nations, both Munster and Leinster limp out of the Heineken Cup in the quarter finals.  It means it’s a long time without high-intensity matches.  The summer tour to Argentina sees Ireland lose twice, and draws clear lines of demarcation between the first XV, “Eddie’s Untouchables”, who don’t travel and the rest of the squad, the tackle-bag holders, who do. The tour was ominous – granted, the first XV weren’t there, but the ease with which Argentina dispatched Ireland was a worry.

And Ireland’s pre-tournament preparation did not go well.  They’ve played poorly, losing to Scotland and only beating Italy in Ravenhill thanks to a highly dubious last-minute try.  The idea of playing a club side, Bayonne, once in camp in France, backfires, with the locals delighting in the role of hired hands set out to soften the opposition up for the main fight with France.  O’Driscoll is punched off the ball and leaves the match with a fractured cheekbone.  Eddie’s squad is rather lopsided, with a wealth of blindsides, but no specialised cover at 7 or 8.

The first game of the tournament sees Ireland play badly against Namibia, the tournament’s lowest ranked side. Eddie picked his Untouchables, with a view to playing them into form – they win 32-17, but it’s an inauspicious start – France and Argentina would put 150 points on the Namibians collectively, yet Ireland actually lost the second half 14-12.

Now the alarm bells were ringing – it was Georgia next, and any opportunity to play some of the dirt-trackers was gone as the imperative was to get the first XV back to life. This was the last opportunity before the real games come, against hosts France, and a fired-up Argentina side which has blown the tournament open by beating France in the opening game.

The Game

The first half is a pedestrian affair.  Ireland get a try, through Rory Best, but David Wallace is sent to the sin-bin and Georgia score the resulting penalty to trail 7-3 at half-time.  Then things go pear-shaped.  Peter Stringer throws a floaty pass towards O’Driscoll, and it’s intercepted for a try.  The body language between O’Driscoll and Stringer as the try is scored is not indicative of a team which is enjoying its rugby.  Girvan Dempsey replies with a try in the corner, which Ronan O’Gara converts to give Ireland a 14-10 lead.  But they cannot put the Georgians away, and as the game enters the last ten minutes it is the minnows who are piling on the pressure.  Winning the physical battle, they pick, drive and maul their way towards the line.  Indeed, they get over the whitewash, but Denis Leamy’s body is under the ball, and Ireland breathe again.

Ireland win 14-10, but it is the closest any established nation has come to such humiliation – had the Georgians showed a bit more poise and not attempted a swathe of miracle drop goals in the second half, the victory was there for the taking.  Ireland’s form is now beyond crisis point.  They have also failed to secure a bonus point, meaning if they lose to France and beat Argentina they could still go out.  The tournament is shaping up to be a disaster – Ireland appear poorly conditioned (but how, when they looked so good?) and Eddie has been forced to stick rigidly to his first team in an effort to play them in to something approaching form, but it hasn’t happened.

This half of WoC (Palla) remembers watching the game through his fingers.  With flights booked to Paris for the following week, it simply didn’t bear thinking about that the long awaited trip could be to see two dead rubbers in the French capital.

The Aftermath

The rest of the World Cup panned out with the inevitability of an unfolding horror story.  Ireland did up their game to an extent against France, but ran out 25-3 losers, two classic poacher’s tries by – who else? – Vincent Clerc enabling the hosts to pull away on the scoreboard.  It left Ireland needing not only to beat Argentina, but win by more than seven and score four tries in the process.  It never looked like happening, and Argentina dominated the match, winning 30-15.  In the first half, when David Wallace, of all people, was gang tackled and driven back 20 metres, it was clear the jig was up.  Juan Martin Hernandez was the game’s dominant figure, dropping three goals with all the fuss of someone buying a pint of milk.

Ireland went home humiliated, having entered the tournament as one of the favourites.  It was an astonishing fall from grace.  What had gone wrong?  Any number of theories were put forward, with the rumour mill going into overdrive.  Ronan O’Gara – having played with all the conviction of a man struggling to remember if he’d left the iron on at home – was having personal problems.  Geordan Murphy had packed his bags after being dropped from the bench for the French game.  Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer had come to blows after the Georgia game.  It went on and on, and was very ugly – the intrusion into certain players lives was completely unnecessary, and quite shocking.

Other reasons with more foundation were offered up.  What was clear was that the players were poorly conditioned for test rugby.  Sure, they looked great on the beach, but they weren’t battle hardened.  The preparation was flawed, and once the team started underperforming, Eddie was unwilling to change the team – save for Peter Stringer, who became something of a fall guy.  The players were miserable in a poor choice of hotel in Bordeaux and became bored and irritable.

Frankie Sheahan offered an interesting nugget in a recent Sunday Times article: he felt the coaches had become too concerned with player statistics.  Certain players were being absolved from blame for particular outcomes because they had hit so many rucks, or made so many tackles.  He felt it contributed to an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality within the squad.  When he talked to Rodrigo Roncero at the post-match dinner, Frankie asked him if the Argentina camp had relied on individual performance statistics.  ‘No’, Rodrigo replied, ‘we don’t care how many tackles a player makes, whether it’s 1 or 100, so long as somebody makes the tackle when it has to be made’.  It spoke of a coach whose philosophy had reached its sell-by date.

The strangest thing was that when the players returned to their provinces, the majority found their form again quickly.  Ronan O’Gara went back to Munster and immediately played as well as he had ever done.  Indeed, he piloted them to the Heineken Cup that year, while Leinster won the Magners League.  The players themselves were at a loss to explain it all.  Shane Horgan recently recalled irate fans demanding answers as to why they had been so poor, and his thoughts were: ‘You want answers?  I’m the one who wants answers!’

Eddie had one more Six Nations to put things right, but by now he was a busted flush.  He belatedly and reluctantly let a bang-in-form Jamie Heaslip have a game, and was rewarded with a performance (but no victory) in Paris, but the final two games saw Ireland lose at home to Wales and get thrashed by a Danny Cipriani-inspired England.

Eddie did the decent thing and resigned, leaving the team at a pretty low ebb.  There was only one choice of replacement: the man who had led Munster to two Heineken Cups in three years, and a coach his polar opposite in almost every way: Declan Kidney. The players were crying out for a new approach, and they were going to get one.

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19 Comments

  1. Cena2j

     /  July 26, 2012

    I’m guessing France or England in Croke park 2009 is next.
    The georgia game was a nightmare. I rememebr initially watching it disenterested and had it on in the background while i was doin other stuff. With about 20 minutes left I was on the edge of the couch in a state of shock.

  2. Elsmido

     /  July 26, 2012

    It’s amazing the amount of people who are actually harking back to the O’Sullivan days recently. Talk about desperation! But it’s hard to know where to look. O’Sullivan was an old-school, one-trick pony who was out of his depth. Sound familiar? My fear is that the conservative IRFU will resort to another Irish coach. ‘One of our own’ is the parochial mantra when it has been proven, time and again, over the last ten years that their is no substitute for SH experience.

    Provincial success has left Irish rugby followers salivating for something similar at International level, which seems a long way off at this juncture. It will be interesting to see your thoughts at the end of this series of articles which I am enjoying during my enforced break.

    • We’re in agreement with you on the ‘harking back’ issue Elsmido. I guess people are looking back at the number of four-win series and how Eddie sustained his peak for longer than Deccie, but people need to remember that Eddie lost his way too, and his methods weren’t appropriate for the players in the end – by this stage the team leaders were vastly experienced and needed to be let play it as they saw it a bit more.

      • Amiga500

         /  July 26, 2012

        The morale of the story is; you need a coach that proactively looks at improving their gameplan; if it means a re-write every so often and trying novel new ideas, so be it.

        To sit still is to go backwards. The last two Irish head coaches have came in at the top, in tune with how to play the game, then gradually got left behind.

      • The problem is that the team was playing beautiful rugby at its peak under Eddie. At its peak under Kidney it was grinding out ugly victories with “intensity” based performances. Also, Eddie had them performing at a high standard for a much longer period. All of which makes the swiftness of his fall from grace and the slowness of Kidney’s all the more galling.

  3. My interest in and support for the international side has still not recovered from that match in Bordeaux. Having travelled on a train to and from Brussels for an overnighter there was a sense of personal betrayal…one which most Irish fans at the match seemed to share. The only Irish rugby game I have ever attended where supporters booed their own team off the pitch. O’Driscoll stopping playing rugby in the middle of play to berate Stringer was the ultimate symptom of the malaise in the squad – and the only negative thing I can remember him doing in his career. Here is the Shkinin try for those who want to remember: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vl6xf0KTLUc

    After spending a large part of a month’s salary to follow Ireland at that world cup, I made the decision afterwards to concentrate my rugby supporting resources on only one team…and it has paid off in dividends.

    • Cena2j

       /  July 26, 2012

      wordpress don’t do liking comments but if they did this would be probably be the best liked comment in the world.
      I can’t agree more with you and feel nothing but sympathy for you after spending all that money and feel like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW0Gj8FcGx0 which is putting a lighthearted spin on it

    • HenryFitz

       /  July 26, 2012

      What a pity you didn’t get what you felt you were entitled to. A terrible betrayal, I’m sure. Your fair-weather support has been missed in the interim.

      • Kenny

         /  July 26, 2012

        “Your fair-weather support has been missed in the interim.”
        what a rotten comment Henry, the team played awful and he spent a huge chunk of cash going to it; what the hell do you expect

      • I shouldn’t even dignify that with a response but having followed the team in the 1990s, I can tell you my support for Ireland (standing on empty terraces in Landsdowne Road watching them lose to Italy for example) certainly wasn’t all “fair weather”…just as it hasn’t been with the province I support.

        I am still a passionate Ireland supporter – I just haven’t gotten back to the place where I am willing to invest more of my hard earned cash to travel and support the team (and I would always have to travel both my province and country, as I live abroad…in a non-6 Nations country).

  4. Len

     /  July 26, 2012

    How did Eddie, the coaching team and the IRFU take us from the highest point of the O’Sullivan era to the lowest in only six months? We went into a world cup totally unprepared because our head coach wouldn’t let his golden xv out of the cotton wool cocoons he had them in, all because the memory of Geordan Murphy still haunted him. The squad selection was a mystery, only one recognised 7 and 8 (sort of), four sixes and a second centre as cover for our only out half.

    Between the media and the disintegration of the 1d Eddie game plan the world cup was a nightmare. The Georgia match was one of the worst games I’ve had to sit through as an Irish fan and given the way things were in the 90’s that’s saying a lot. I can still remember the sick feeling at the end of the game when the realisation of how low we’d sunk finally set in. The fact that this also marked the end to Denis Hickie’s career made things even worse, what a horrible way to bow out of international rugby.

    What really annoys me about this low point is that despite a grand slam win we’re still pretty much where we were five years ago. One dimensional attack, strange selections and a coach without a plan b. The real question now is how long has Deckie K got left. Will he do the honourable thing and walk away if the autumn internationals and six nations prove as disastrous as the NZ tour. How much time will our next coach get to minimise the negative effect before the next world cup? At least the club season starts again soon, watching Leinster will take my mind of the problems of the national side for a bit.

  5. @Curates_Egg thanks for offering a very personal slant on it. I didn’t go to Bordeaux but a group of us did go over to Paris for the last two group games. The sheer depression of it all only fully sank in after the Argentina game, because up to that point we’d all had some tiny shred of hope that it would turn around, or at least go down swinging. I have to say I didn’t share your feeling of betrayal. It certainly never occured to us as a group that the players might not have given it absolutely everything they had. We all just felt… crushed.

    • Honestly, I found lots of positives in the Argentina game. It was by far the team’s best performance and I was relieved the debacle was over and not to have to attend any more games after. Also, Parc des Princes is always great craic (unlike St Denis).

  6. Another great article – a fine read! I was at the Georgia game, and it was every bit as depressing as you’ve made it sound. One grim night.

    The ‘undercooked’ argument is one I’ve never fully believed in or accepted. Lads like Shane Horgan and David Wallace [both well-established and important players in the side by then] were injured in the build-up and couldn’t get on the pitch pre-tournament, but all O’Sullivan’s other first-choice players had started two games … most of them vs Bayonne [ http://www.rte.ie/sport/rugby/irish/2007/0815/221578-ireland1/ 16/08/07] and vs Italy [ http://www.irishrugby.ie/rugby/match_centre.php?section=lineups&fixid=29998 24/08/07] – although Drico started vs Scotland [11/08/07] and Bayonne, and O’Connell [and Neil Best] started all three games.

    Of DK’s RWC11 first-choice XV, only four players [Earls, Healy, Ross and O’Callaghan] had started more than two games in the warm-ups … all four of them started three games. O’Driscoll, Ferris and Bowe had only played a single game of the warm-ups, and Rob Kearney had only played two games in ten months.

    For the vast majority of the two teams, there wasn’t a big difference in gametime going into their two RWCs. I think there were other more significant issues than too few warm-up games, frankly.

    • radge fan

       /  August 7, 2012

      The intensity would have been different – huge difference between playing France & Bayonne (who were out to make a name for themselves).

      And staying in an industrial estate in France wouldn’t have helped the bordom situation either. All the players had too much time to get up-tight.

      I also think the rumour campaign about ROG would certainly not have helped him either.

      Alan Quinlan wrote an insightful article in the Irish Times some time last season about the difference of playing interpro rugby and international rugby..

  7. What I often struggle with is the scale of the performance decline.

    For comparison, consider our worst performance in the RWC of 2011, against the USA – this was bad, but we never looked remotely like losing, and it was fairly “normal” and representative of our general form in the build-up.

    In 2007, we went from the best team in Europe to struggling to beat Georgia .. that’s stunning. And I’m not sure I buy the Eddie’s methods being last their sell-by date either – they were fine 6 months previously. For a methodological coaching decline, you’d be more likely to see a pattern like Ireland 2010-12 with a gradual decline in performance and results.

    • Yep, something went drastically, drastically wrong. I remember Ireland lost a football qualifier to Spain 3-0 in Lansdowne Road sometime in the 1990s [I just checked and it was actually 3-1 in 1993] and conceded three goals in the first 20 minutes.

      Johnny Giles had to come out and reassure the nation that “You don’t turn into a bad team overnight”, and we ended up qualifying for USA94 anyway.

      It looked exactly like the Irish rugby team did turn into a bad team overnight. They were sensational against England and Italy in 6N07 and then absolutely rubbish all of a sudden. Bizarre.

      When you were at the games you could see players b*tching and moaning at each other a good bit, not sure if that came across on the box.

      It’s impossible to know what went on on – nobody has said anything much beyond the hotel being sh*t [which is a bit of a softc*ck excuse], so it’s not entirely far-fetched to imagine that there’s some sort of omertà between those involved. What goes on tour etc.

  8. Spike

     /  July 29, 2012

    WOC, a great post (as always). You and Mole have become my go-to sources for intelligent rugby analysis. The comments here bring back the sheer nausea of that Georgia game – I’ve never experienced anything like it, not even during recent stuffings by NZ or England.
    One miniscule positive: he came in for some stick for his overall performance during the tournament, but Denis Leamy’s effort to get himself under the ball to prevent Georgia’s try and his commitment during that goal-line stand was one of the few tiny bright spots. Leamy was never the same player from 07 on, but I’ll always be grateful for that bit of grit and defiance. Good luck to him in his retirement.

  9. Chris

     /  July 30, 2012

    As an Irishman in Oz I come to work every morning in anticipation of your next article being uploaded overnight while I sleep and it never fails to disappoint.

    I was exactly the same as Cena2j, game on the background but by the end I was screaming at the television in disbelief!

    How we had gone so far backwards in such a short space of time is beyond me, dementedmole is right, something went drastically wrong and I am sure we will never get to the bottom of what that “something” was.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

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