Dereliction of Duty

If last weekend was the party, this was the comedown.  Three rubbish games: Ireland lost in a match whose quality was dictated by the conditions, France reneged on their great tradition amid one of the most abhorrent international performances in memory, and Italy just couldn’t dredge up the energy to back up their opening-week victory.  We finished the weekend feeling deflated.

The French team’s dereliction of duty to their history and their public was matched only by that of Ireland’s national broadcaster.  RTE’s rugby footage has long been a hot topic of discussion, with the boorish George Hook becoming a particularly trying, oafish presence on our screens.  Worse still, he seems to drag the rest of the pundits – the majority of whom are coherent and intelligent – down to his level by repeatedly shouting over them and maintaining that his pre-match prediction – no matter how wide of the mark – was in fact entirely correct.

But complaining about Hook is about as productive as complaining about the weather.  What was so infuriating about RTE’s presentation of Ireland’s defeat on Sunday was the total absence of any sort of discussion of Ronan O’Gara’s performance.  Just so we’re clear, the once great O’Gara turned in an awful display.  In conditions which could comfortably described as ‘O’Gara-friendly’, his kicking from hand was woefully inaccurate, with his penalties down the line scarcely gaining more than 15 metres.  His passing was similarly abject and his management of the game – so fabled down the years – was dreadful.  He fared better with the placed boot, knocking over two difficult penalties but missing a third, which would have reduced the deficit to three points.  Ultimately, it was sad to see a great, even legendary player reduced to such a shabby level, and underlines the danger of players hanging on for too long.  The old adage of the boxer taking on one too many fights sprang to mind.

The outcome won’t have been too much of a surprise to anyone who has watched Munster this season, where ROG’s game has declined sharply.  We have been of the opinion that ROG can no longer be a force at test level throughout the season.  At 35, this is no disgrace, and his status as a player of the age is secure in any case.  So we weren’t feeling all that glowy when Sexton departed the field injured after 20 minutes, unlike Donal ‘Tremenjus’ Lenihan, who assured us the situation was made for ROG and that he was a marvellous reserve to have.

When such a claim is made, and the outcome does not turn out as the commentator has predicted, the viewing public deserve some explanation as to why it has transpired thus, but Tremenjus wouldn’t say a word against his clubmate.  When ROG sliced a penalty out to touch, Tremenjus said we should have Kearney kicking instead.  But surely this is the very thing that ROG was brought on to do – one of the reasons he was such a good reserve in the first place.  Having Kearney kicking for the line – unless tight to the right touchline – would be entirely without precendent.  ROG’s missed kick at goal was greeted by Tremenjus with the sole observation that ROG had ‘struck it well’ – something even O’Gara would disagree with, given he missed.

Now let’s be fair to ROG here, and note that there were plenty of poor performances in the team.  Sexton’s tactcial kicking had been poor before coming off (though his touchfinders were long and accurate).  Jamie Heaslip performed badly, knocking on twice and conceding penalties (though he led the tackle count).  O’Mahony and especially Healy seemed more intent on fighting than playing footy.  The tight forwards generally did their job well enough, winning scrums and dominating the maul.  O’Brien played well.  It wasn’t a day for the chaps with two numbers on their backs, but Earls was the only one who looked a threat, and Ireland’s attacking shape looked pretty ragged from the start.  Kearney looks out of form and lost the aerial battle to England’s cannily selected full-back-heavy back three, who executed a simple kick-chase game far better than Ireland.

But in the post-match finale, ROG’s performance took on the status of the elephant in the room.  Amid Hook’s bleatings (which, incidentally, were being disproved as he spoke by the stats rolling across the bottom of the screen), and the panel discussion of where the match was lost, two words were conspicuous by their absence: ‘Ronan’ and ‘O’Gara’.  Now, nobody wants to see a centurion test legend get pulled apart on television, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that ROG is a protected species.  On Friday night, on his Newstalk show, Hook was happy to criticise Sexton’s – wait for it – game management in front of a live audience in Cork Con’s club bar, and claimed that Ireland would have won more comfortably had O’Gara been playing in the second half in Cardiff a week prior. So, when ROG’s supposedly superior game management was shown up to be not so superior after all, why was he not asked about it?

What makes it especially galling is that Jonathan Sexton, as a budding international in his second Six Nations season, had to endure scathing criticism from the panel, in particular after a mixed bag of an appearance as a substitute in a narrow win in Murrayfield, when Tremenjus pilloried the player for attempting to keep position and pass to his own team-mates rather than kick to opposing ones.  It may be stretching the point, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the agenda-driven media environment played some part in his recent decision to play his club rugby in Paris – he certainly would have been (rightly) lambasted was it him coming off the bench to produce such an aimless performance.

But, worst of all, it insults the audience.  The viewers have eyes and brains in their heads.  They could see what happened.  ROG was not solely responsible for the loss, but it was abundantly clear that he cannot play to the required level for test rugby any more.  This needed to be said, but it wasn’t.  In a cringe-inducing, self congratulatory round-table interview in the Irish Times a couple of years ago, McGurk and chums described themselves as the link between the team and the public, and appeared to see their role as one of imparting nuggets of wisdom to a public in need of educating.

Therein lies the rub.  When we read the comment box on this blog, or look at the increasing amount of great fan-writing available, or engage with other rugby fans on twitter or – even better – attend a rugby match or chat about the game with our mates in some sort of hostelry that purveys liquid refreshments, it is obvious that the Irish rugby public are passionate, opinionated and knowledgable.  We are aware that not everyone who tunes in to a Six Nations game is as obsessive about the game as many of those who read our pages, but the point holds.  Perhaps if RTE saw their role as not so much educating the hoi polloi about rugby as serving an intelligent community, we’d get the sort of analysis we deserve.  Getting rid of Hook, and putting Shane Horgan and Alan Quinlan centre stage, would be a start.