When one observes the state of the Irish international rugby team, one gets most depressed. One win in the tournament harks back to the late nineties, when we were genuinely rubbish. But are we as bad as results say we are? We don’t think we are over-reaching ourselves to say that, no, we aren’t. The players that make up the Ireland team do ok in their day jobs, for one. The reasons put forth for why we are so bad are as follows:
- The coaching ticket don’t know what they are doing. This is the position most people with two eyes and a functioning brain hold. Conservative selection up to November 2012, before apparently flicking a switch and picking everyone in Ireland for the 2013 Six Nations, is one reason. Confusing roles for the support staff is another – what does Les Kiss do, for example? Does it actually change every series, or is that just his title. Does Mark Tainton have a role in our kicking game? If so, why has he held on to his job for so long when it is so bad? This is an entire other debate, but it appears that it will soon be over – Deccie might not be of a mind for falling on his sword, but someone will administer the last rites
- We keep getting injuries. This is true – but it’s a mitigating factor, not a reason for our failure. At various stages of the Six Nations, we were missing six Lions (Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald) and the presumed Lions outhalf for this years tour. It’s unfortunate, for sure, but Earls and Fitzgerald aren’t first choice, Luke Marshall deputized ably for Dorce, and, while it would have been nice to have Bowe available, Craig Gilroy had a decent tournament. On the flip side, Ferris’ physicality, and O’Connell’s leadership up-front were not adequately replaced – still, an international side should be able to wear the loss of two front-liners, no matter who they are. And anyway, don’t we have a Player Management System for this very purpose?
- We had no luck. If Keith Earls had seen Drico, we would have been too far ahead of Scotland to lose! If we had just held on for ten more minutes, we would have beaten France! We had a flanker on the wing for 40 minutes against Italy! Yes, but he didn’t because he backed himself in a low percentage play (player fail), we didn’t because our bench made no impact (coaching fail) and Peter O’Mahony’s defensive positioning wasn’t exploited once (Italian coaching fail), and sure he spends most of his time on the wing anyway (insert smiley face icon). As Gary Player said, the more I practice, the luckier I get, and we don’t appear to practice, or have a proper plan to put into practice at least.
- Referees hate us. This canard – the Irish coaching ticket are very fond of this one, as are their cheerleaders in the meeja. Gerry Thornley said after the 2011 Six Nations, Messrs Poite, Pearson, Owen and Kaplan (with the, eh, help of Allan) gave them a raw deal. Really, in all our games but one, the referee was biased against us? Axel Foley was barely in the job two minutes when he was moaning about the men in the middle. It’s a road to nowhere, and it’s untrue at any rate – sure, you get bad decisions from time to time, but they will average out, and if your team commits more offences than the opposition, the penalty count is likely to be against them
- There are shadowy people in the IRFU telling Deccie who to pick. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight Frankie. Do they meet in badly-lit underground carparks? And you are sure this isn’t just paranoid nonsense to mask the fact that you can’t admit that Deccie can be wrong, AND Ronan O’Gara is out of form? Oh, you are speculating – well, how about you speculate somewhere else instead of trying to masquerade as an expert
- The end of the Golden Generation. Now, this is what we came here for. Let us examine this one in some more depth
The ‘Golden Generation’ in Irish rugby terms is generally taken to refer to the team which won three Triple Crowns in four years from 2004-2007, then collapsed spectacularly at the World Cup that year. The team was still mostly intact for the Grand Slam in 2009, but there was an infusion of new blood through the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Tomas O’Leary, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe.
The contention is that the retirement of the ‘Golden Generation’, one-by-one, and their replacement by inadequate players following up is one of the reasons that we aren’t as competitive as we were back in their heyday.
To digress for a moment, our first hearing of the term ‘Golden Generation’ was in reference to the Portuguese soccer team that won World Youth Cups in 1989 and 1991 – this was the team of Rui Costa, Luis Figo and Paulo Sousa. At senior level, the team rarely bothered the scorer, a semi-final at Euro 2000 being the pinnacle of their achievement. It was in fact the next generation, spear-headed by Cristiano Ronaldo, that has brought Portugal to the level of consistent semi-finalists in international football (2006, 2008, 2012). The silver medal at Euro 2004 was mostly the younger team, but with Figo and Costa playing prominent roles in the team and squad.
So the Portuguese ‘Golden Generation’ actually achieved less than their ungarlanded successors. Interesting. The term ‘Golden Generation’ seems to imply something once-off, something that can never be repeated and must be milked for all its worth. After all, the supply of gold is fixed … oh wait, it isn’t!
So let us examine the first-choice Ireland team of 2007 versus the first-choice team of 2013. We will assume there are no injuries, and then examine the benches.
Marcus Horan, Jirry Flannery, John Hayes vs Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross. The Ireland scrum always seems to be on the point of collapse, and Hayes and Ross have toiled manfully at the coalface to prevent it for the best part of 13 years. Ross is more powerful and destructive, so we’re taking him. On the loosehead side, Healy on form is one of the best in Europe, whereas Horan was a wily operator who got by more on street smarts than talent. At hooker, it’s a great problem to have – Jirry was a better thrower and more dynamic in open play, whereas Besty is an excellent groundhog and a better scrummager. Verdict: 2013 props, and either hooker
Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan vs Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan. No contest here – Ryan has a higher ceiling than DOC did, but his level now is rather similar to DOC in 2007. However, O’Connell is injury-ravaged and battling to get his career back on track now, whereas he was close to the peak of his powers in 2007. Verdict: Paul O’Connell (2007) with either of the others
Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy vs Stephen Ferris (if fit) / Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. At the blindside, Fez is one of the few world-class players in Ireland, but is frequently injured and appears to be off to Japan in any case. Peter O’Mahony is the chosen man at 6 in his absence. Ferris is far and away the pick of the bunch, and we’d be more or less neutral between O’Mahony and Easterby; one a grafter, the other a footballer, both good in the lineout . Neither of the sevens are classic opensides (plus ca change), but both are excellent players – we would be content to have either in our backrow. At the back of the scrum, we’d have Heaslip – Leamy had the skills for 8, but was really a converted blindside, Heaslip is a Test Lion, albeit one used as a ruck scrapper by Ireland. Verdict: Ferris if fit, otherwise neutral; either of the sevens, Heaslip
Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara vs Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton. Good choice to have here, and four very different players. Stringer was the passer supreme, whereas Murray is in the breaking and game managing mould. Having said that, Strings most memorable moments (Biarritz 2006, Scotland 2009) cam from breaks, and Murray is a better passer than he is generally given credit for. We’d go for Murray on the basis that he offers a little more variety to the game. At outhalf, you have a Ligind versus a money-grabbing traitor. Or a one-dimensional boot merchant who can’t defence versus a triple Heineken Cup-winning best outhalf in Europe. ROG of 2007 or Sexton of 2013? We’d take either (which will prevent this piece being entirely about this choice as well). Verdict: Murray, either of the tens
Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll vs Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll. One of the best centre partnerships of all-time. It’s pretty obvious that having them in their late 20s at their best is preferable to now, with a nod to the fact that the output, particularly of O’Driscoll, is still at a high level. Verdict: 2007 vintage
Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey vs Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney. Not much to choose between those two lineups, with the exception of left wing, where Hickie, along with Simon Geoghegan, was our best and most natural wing in our lifetime. On the right, Horgan was a supreme catcher and finisher, but Bowe hits the line exceptionally well, and brings just a shade more class. When he is missing, Ireland’s try count inevitably declines. Both are good defenders and great fellows, but only Bowe is a nailed-on Lion when fully fit. At full-back, Dempsey is the better defender, and Kearney uses his boot more effectively in attack. Again, Kearney on form is a Lions class player, whereas Dempsey, for all his qualities, never quite convinced he was better than Geordan Murphy, his backup. Verdict: Hickie, Bowe, Kearney
Simon Best, Rory Best, Malcolm O’Kelly, Neil Best, Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace, Geordan Murphy vs Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony / Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Luke Fitzgerald / Keith Earls / Craig Gilroy / Fergus McFadden. Neither bench would be familiar with coming on to play a specific role, with both teams heavily dependent on the first XV. We have chosen Tom Court to cover both sides of the scrum to make the benches comparable, and hav gone with the management team’s preference for Paddy Jackson over Ian Madaigan as reserve out half, whatever the wisdom of it. Neither bench would especially fill one with confidence – the standouts would be Rory Best, Mal O’Kelly, Geordan Murphy (2007) and the myriad of back three players from the 2013 team. So, 2007 looks slightly higher in quality, with the caveat that Neil Best is nowhere near international class, and Paddy Wallace is not an outhalf. Verdict: Hobson’s Choice really, but 2007 by a nose.
Overall then, player for player, there’s little to choose between the groups of players. It’s very hard to make the argument that the ‘Golden Generation’ of 2007 is markedly superior to the current group of players. Great players have retired, for sure, – 2007 is six years ago at this stage, and it would be strange if they hadn’t – but the replacements are players of arguably just as high a standard in almost all cases. The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ were undoubtedly golden compared to what went before, but that’s not to say the next generation of players – no doubt inspired by seeing the likes of O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Gara in their youth – couldn’t be just as good. There is no reason to assume they were a one off, and that Ireland couldn’t continue to produce talented footballers. There is no lack of good players available to national team coaches, and a talent drain due to retirements cannot excuse recent performances.
Not so golden after all then, but headlines can’t make use of the term ‘Base Metal Generation’ or just ‘Generation’ as much can they?