All That Glisters Is Not Gold

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.

Front Row:

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

Second Row:

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

Back Row:

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

Half-backs:

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

Centre:

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

Back three:

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

Bench:

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?

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23 Comments

  1. gaiusc

     /  March 26, 2013

    Ah get out of it. 2007 had BOD when he was still good and POC was at the peak of his powers. 2013 has BOD very much on the wane and no POC at all. Have a look at Munster’s recent games to give you an idea of just how much we’ve been missing POC. All the others are just filler.

    Oh and when you compare front rows, you are conveniently leaving out that in 2007, our lineout was a real weapon with Jerry throwing and Hayes lifting. Now we can’t seem to win ball in the opposition 22. Ross has to get marked down on the lineout alone.

    • Bowe gathers

       /  March 27, 2013

      And you’re conveniently forgetting Horan’s absolute capitulation at scrum time. Watch any highlight of our scrum then, he closed the gap (a weak loosehead’s last option) to negate the hit, then swung his hips out losing all power. His inadequacy up front meant our scrum was at best static, and then people accused Hayes of not bring good enough when it was aul pup to blame. He was the last amateur we ever played. Compared with him Kilcoyne is a destructive scrummager. 2013 vintage is lightyears ahead at scrum time.

  2. Think McCarthy might have warranted a mention in the second row and perhaps goinf forward an analysis of who will replace BOD/Dorce would have been good to examine given how special the BOD/D’Arcy partnership has been

  3. Think it will be more interesting to compare ‘the Golden Generation’ with the future Irish teams of 2014/2015 as many of the players such as Drico and Darce are still involved in the setup. I think with the likes of Madigan,Gilroy,Zebo,Henderson etc coming through the future is quite bright for Ireland.
    Added in the inevitable change of reign with Kidney being replaced by AN Other(anybody else will do), things could be looking pretty good for the next few seasons.
    I would be worried with the over reliance on Ross and Healy though, and with what looks like an absolute disaster of an import in Michael Bent there is definitely a cause for concern in relation to the front row. However saying that, with the expectation a good bit lower I think the players will look forward to going into the Summer Tour and more importantly the next Six Nations and meeting it with a more expansive and open game play.

  4. solidalarry

     /  March 26, 2013

    I’ve long thought the best legacy BOD, POC and the rest from back in the day could leave Irish rugby – a World Cup win aside – would be to ensure that future generations of players, for the foreseeable, were better than what we have previously enjoyed. I think this is the case, though Paulie still has another WC in him (and I’d make him captain in a second, marvellous on Saturday, marvellous).

    PS. Jonny Sexton now is a better player than Rog ever was, IMO. Ronan’s great genius is to have such a long and successful career despite his lack of physical gifts. Jonny is not hamstrung in such a way, and is now a dominating out half in his own right, while his running game is obviously well beyond what Rog could ever do. I can understand why you’d say ‘either’, for numerous reasons, and in the spirit of the article it’s probably the right call. But still…

    • Franno

       /  March 26, 2013

      I’d be a Big j10 fan, but he has never really replicated his Leinster form with Ireland so with regards to this debate I think u have to pick ROG, having said that 07 wasn’t really his finest year in an Irish jersey!

  5. Firstly I’ve always thought the term ‘golden generation’ was a load of b*****ks. Flannery was undoubtedly world class but was flanked either side by two props who couldn’t scrum. It’s widely acknowledged we had the worst scrum of all the top tier nations for nearly a decade. I think Mal O K and POC were two very special players so I’ve no issue with them, but DOC has been hanging off POC’s coattails for his entire career. Great servant but an average player who’s great workrate in his earlier years got him through. Backrow: liginds! No quibble there, but I’d agree Heaslip is better than Leamy.Then we get to the issue of the halfbacks. This may seem very dismissive (and I have nothing but respect for O’Gara’s huge achievements, both in green and red) but neither halfbacks could tackle or pose an attacking threat (and Stringer couldn’t box kick either). I think Horgan, Hickie and Murphy were all quite good players(especially Murphy) but I wouldn’t describe any of them as being fantastic. I’d have Fitzgerald and Bowe over the two wingers any day. Always liked Murphy but his defence let us down at key times and he never really matched his Leicester form in a green jersey (though that wasn’t all of his own doing).

    Of course this is only one man’s opinion, but it is a fact that the so called ‘golden generation’ of the O’Sullivan era won absolutely nothing* at international level, and an eventual championship victory arrived after an infusion of a new generation of Ferris, Heaslip, O Leary, Fitzgerald and Kearney

    Second of all I think David Wallace would be the second name on my team sheet after O’Driscoll. A phenomenal player for years who was equally important to Ireland and Munster as POC (and would have been as important as ROG if Paddy Wallace wasn’t our backup 10!).

    • Amiga500

       /  March 26, 2013

      Agree on Davy Wallace – how good would he have been if he wasn’t having to babysit ROG in practically every match.

      • Bowe gathers

         /  March 27, 2013

        Wally and Richard Hill were the pinnacle, softly spoken men of steel. A true ligind.

  6. RDS Curva Nord

     /  March 26, 2013

    Eddie got the most out of that team, one spectacular failure aside.
    What we do know is that if those two teams played eachother it would be a tight game (probably unwatchable to the neutral) and that both sides would blame the ref!

  7. lumpy

     /  March 26, 2013

    Very interesting analysis most of which I would agree with. I think the single biggest change though is the depth in almost all positions beyond the 22/23. Despite ROG retiring, Ireland actually have 2 or 3 options behind Sexton now. In 2007, there was just Paddy Wallace whom Eddie refused play and it cost Ireland in 2007 when ROG was on a woeful run of form. There is great depth in most areas without too much of a drop-off in quality apart from tight head prop, maybe lock and centre.

    The 2007 team would have looked like a bit like this with a similar injury crisis to the 6 nations just gone –

    Simon Best, Frankie Sheehan, Bryan Young, O’Callaghan, O’Kelly, Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy, Stringer, Wallace, Brian Carney, Horgan, O’Driscoll, Trimble, Dempsey

    Tom Court, Rory Best, Mick O’Driscoll, Neil Best, Isaac Boss, Jeremy Staunton??, Gavin Duffy

    All hypothetical but, (and even accounting for the removal of ROG as possibly being a positive thing), that team is likely to have really struggled in 2007, who knows, maybe lost to Georgia.

    IMO this Golden Generation thing is a symptom of the media being a little too close and reverent to a particular bunch of players and coaches. It resulted in a number of the more experienced players (a number of whom should have been hammered for their lack of leadership in the 6 nations), getting off due to their reputation while novices like Paddy Jackson, Mike McCarthy and Dave Kilcoyne all got lashed. BOD effectively cost Ireland the match in Rome but noone has been willing to say it. I imagine if Jackson had done something similar we would still be hearing about it. Instead, there’s talk of a pointless appeal by O’Driscoll… O’Callaghan, Kearney and ROG too were all extremely disappointing in terms of the leadership they provided – all the talk was of their individual form and their Lions chances/retirement. Hopefully, the new coach will sort this out.

    The combination of the return of Sexton, Bowe, Zebo, Strauss (and possibly O’Connell and Ferris) in the Autumn with the further blooding over the summer of the likes of Madigan, Henshaw, Jackson, Marshall, Henderson, Gilroy (and possibly even Olding and Ryan) and the injection of confidence and new ideas that might come from the likes of Schmidt or McKenzie could have Ireland’s fortunes turned around a lot more quickly than many people think.

    The All Blacks certainly wouldn’t be relishing taking on a 23 like this in November –

    Healy, Strauss, Ross, O’Connell, Ryan, Ferris, Heaslip, O’Brien, Murray, Sexton, Zebo, Marshall, O’Driscoll, Bowe, Kearney

    Kilcoyne, Best, Court, McCarthy/Henderson/O’Mahony, Reddan, Madigan, Gilroy

    • Manga's League

       /  March 27, 2013

      I’m sure the ABs would be quaking in their boots….

    • Joseph

       /  March 27, 2013

      Good chance O’Driscoll won’t be around them, hoepfully replaced by a centre who plays there regularly. Cave/O’Malley – also think McSharry/McFadden would have a go at the 12 shirt if given the opportunity too.

  8. Yossarian

     /  March 26, 2013

    I think players who made Lions Test teams is the best way to run a comparison.(Woodwards hundred and one player tour makes tourists a poor comparison, Andy Titteral toured,Dear God!) It will be a lot clearer comparison after the tour to Oz. The Lions selectors could be regarded as independent judges especially considering our media analysts.
    Healy,Best,Sexton and SOB could change the basis of a comparison soon.
    Factor in Luke,Bowe and Kearney all started tests in SA that puts them ahead of Hickie,Dempsey and Horgan(No.22 in NZ)

    For me it will be more the POC, D’Arcy BOD generation. These are the three we are struggling to find quality comparable replacements for. Virtually everyone else of the “Golden Generation”(hate the term personally) has been more than adequately replaced.

  9. Leinsterlion

     /  March 26, 2013

    Murray over Stringer? Ones a whippet quick passer, the other fafs about at the back of the ruck. Its no contest there. If I didn’t believe in WC cycles I would have been clamoring for Stringer to be in the Ireland squad. His bones may be creaking but his pass is still amongst the quickest around. Murray and O’Leary are both flawed clones of Mike Philips, who himself is a lesser version of Byron Kellaher. Ireland thrive on quick ball, all Murray does is slow everything down or box kick away possession.
    Sexton vs O’Gara is no contest either, O’Gara is Stephen Jones with less defensive acumen, Sexton is one of the best 10’s in the world, O’Gara could never claim that.
    I’d have peak Murphy in over Kearney any day, RK relies on his boot too much and has never run a line as good as all the best FB’s do. RK, dare i say it, is overrated.

    • Amiga500

       /  March 26, 2013

      I find myself (somewhat reluctantly) agreeing with you re Kearney.

      Great under a high ball and got a good left boot on him. But, compare him to say Jared Payne, and he comes up well short in almost every other facet of the game.

      • Yossarian

         /  March 26, 2013

        Murphy cost us plenty of tries with his defensive frailties(thinking of the French here) Still would have had him in the team though!he epitomized my hatred of EOS, defensive solidity (Girv) over game breaking class. Often thought he could have been developed as an alternate 10 if someone had got hold of him sooner.
        again using Lions test team as an unbiased view Rob made the test team,can’t recall Murphy doing the same.

  10. Anonymous

     /  March 26, 2013

    Great article. One of the points made which stuck out for me was the fact that after so many barren, try-less, 10 man style rugby years from Ireland. we suddenly had a bunch of players who could actually do things on the pitch that were easy on the eye. Add to this the fact that we won so many Triple Crowns! What are they?….. I hear anyone under 40 saying…..but they were considered progress at the time. No wonder they were thought of as a golden generation, in Irish terms compared to what had gone before they were most certainly that.

    But when you look back and see what Wales have achieved over a similar period, it puts things in perspective. The fact that Ireland have been better than Wales over most of that decade should not be up for discussion. But when you compare what has been delivered, the facts are damning and damn frustrating given the resources at our disposal during that time.

    I think we Irish supporters are getting sick and tired of enduring the near misses and the ‘never mind the results, feel the quality’ attitude. How many times have we been done in by a last gasp whatever and being assured that we’ll learn from this. We never learn. We are the perennial second placers. Whenever we’ve had a sniff (or whiff!) of glory, it has slipped through our fingers for one reason or another, and I, for one, have given up on dreaming of Grand slams or WC semi-finals.

    I’ll be happy with mid-table finishes and the odd blast as usual. Maybe I’m getting old.

  11. paddy

     /  March 26, 2013

    Never bought the golden generation thing at all. We had some great players then as we had in the past and still do now. I suppose it persisted with the help of agents and merchandising deals.

  12. Dave

     /  March 27, 2013

    Would we ever have had a “Golden Generation” if there was a coach at the helm who considered players outside his “Untouchables”? Steady Eddie created the idea by sticking with virtually the same team for 7 years with a few changes, and the media clung onto the headline “Golden Generation”. We may not have individual players of the same caliber in the same positions now (or coming through) i.e. POC, D’Arcy, BOD. However what we do have is a greater spread of talent. We don’t have, many/any, delete as appropriate, outrageously gifted players but neither do Wales (Tipuric aside perhaps) and they seem to be doing ok?

    By the way I would place BOD, Carter, Christian Cullen, Lomu, Johnson, Hill, McCaw, Campese etc. in the outrageously category.

    • Joseph

       /  March 27, 2013

      Shur’ Cullen was useless for Munster!

      • Anonymous

         /  March 27, 2013

        And Rocky has really ripped it up since he left Leinster….

  13. Hmmm, one very important aspect missing here. The coach.

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