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.