Following our optimistic reflection on the weekend’s action, John White’s here to bring us back to reality…
Irish rugby was at it’s zenith in 2009. A grand slam finally delivered following years of being on the wrong side of the bounce, with the rub of the green going against them consistently. Then came 2009, and the ‘Golden Generation’ finally got their time in the limelight – and made up the bulk of a competitive Lions squad in South Africa. However, since these halcyon days, the Irish have taken a step back, and as we analyse a winless tour Down Under, The Rugby Blog looks into some of the reasons for this fall from grace.
Before we dive into the analysis, let’s look at the facts:
– Ireland have lost their last 5 tests (including vs. NZ Maori)
– Donnacha O’Callaghan was the most capped player in the Irish scrum at the weekend against Australia, with more caps than the rest of the Irish pack put together
– Ireland have not won in Australia since 1978, and have never beaten New Zealand in their long distinguished history
The above makes grim reading for Ireland fans who were surfing the wave of their Grand Slam success. The men in green have struggled against top tier nations during the very period when they should be building up for the next world cup and have struggled to push on from their success. So where does the issue stem from?
1. Player burn out – The IRFU are one of the best unions in world rugby at protecting their players and ensuring that they are as fresh as possible for International rugby. However, due to the nature of the national side of late being dominated by a core set of players there is an argument that this has contributed to the run of poor results recently. Although Declan Kidney was lauded for opening up the gates to the shirt for a younger generation, the likes of Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Luke Fitzgerald have had very little rest over the past 2 seasons and looked jaded towards the end of the summer – Kearney looked. And when you add to that the established players like BOD, Paul O’Connell, John Hayes and David Wallace, the Irish team starts to look like butter spread over too much bread. The Irish have essentially been victims of their own success of the Irish in 2009 both in the Six Nations and on the High Veldt.
2. Strength in depth – The success of the Irish team recently has it’s roots in the continuity of their team selection. The low frequency of top level player injuries contrasted markedly with other home nations as Ireland went from strength to strength. This continuity enabled players like Heaslip, Ferris and O’Leary to establish themselves as world class players, and, ultimately, gave Ireland a platform to push forward. However, as with any upside, there usually is a downside. The monopoly held by each player in their position did not promote a squad. For each Six Nations game it was relatively easy to pick the Ireland 22 man squad – each player was playing well, so why wouldn’t you play them? It’s only now that we’ve come across a stumbling block. With the decimation of the back row (Heaslip saw red, Wallace had to leave the tour for family reasons, and Ferris and Leamy didn’t tour due to injury) came opportunities for a younger generation, but is this younger generation ready, or even good enough? John Muldoon was exposed as a second tier international player; Chris Henry showed vigour and gusto but was shown how lonely an international test pitch can be when he gifted Luke Burgess a try last weekend; Kevin McLaughlin was the heir apparent to the 6 shirt but didn’t even step onto the plane, which gave players like Niall Ronan and U20 player Rhys Ruddock (with only 230 minutes of top flight club rugby under his belt) a chance in the shirt. Good experience for all involved, but can they all push towards the RWC 2011? I’ve used the example of the back-row, but the above issue extends across the park – is Mick O’Driscoll really worth a place in the squad? Can we compete in the front row? What happens if BOD and D’Arcy get injured? You see my point…
3. The top two inches – Despite Ireland’s recent success, it was dangerously apparent during their Southern Hemisphere tour that the squad were thinking like winners. When the likes of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia get a sniff of a chance, they take them, however, Ireland (like other Northern Hemisphere teams) don’t seem to have that x-factor in the top two inches. Ireland have one of the best back lines in world rugby, and, when given stable ball from set piece situations, the back line cuts other teams to ribbons – and did so on their tour. However, what’s their plan B? When this tactic doesn’t work, where do they go to? Have they got a pack of forwards with enough grit, determination and skill to grind out a win? During the Australia game, Ireland often descended into a Barbarian style of rugby, desperately flinging the ball to their talismans of BOD and Bowe to create something out of nowhere. True international champions need to have a level of confidence in their ability that almost borders on arrogance, but, at the same time, the Ireland management need to have a game plan up their sleeve that the players can execute when they aren’t making inroads via plan A.
So, in one sentence, what is the reason for Ireland’s regression? Where do we begin…