Ireland enter the 2010 Six Nations in a position they have not had the pleasure of occupying for 24 years – that of defending champions. Indeed they enter as Grand Slam winners, something they have not done for 61 years. They made a decent fist of it back in 1949, recovering from a home defeat to France to win a Triple Crown. But in truth, as we advance into a new decade this Ireland team finds itself in uncharted waters.
They must have wondered whether this day would come. Ireland had flattered to deceive for some years and there was the very real possibility that a so-called ‘Golden Generation’ was to pass without accumulating any significant silverware, with all due respect to a hat-trick of Triple Crowns. That last bit of confidence, belief and conviction was lacking at the key moments. While they have had the measure of England in recent years, they had consistently come up short against the French, seemingly cowed by the prospect of what the French could do if the mood took them rather than playing what was in front of them.
After several near misses, 2007 had the appearance of a major watershed. Ireland were hosting both England and France at Croke Park and once they had beaten Wales in Cardiff the Grand Slam was there for the taking. But they played with an utter lack of belief and ambition when the French came calling and fell to a late Vincent Clerc try. A fortnight later, their 43-13 demolition of England had everybody speculating as to what might have been. Things went downhill from there and they turned in one of the most spectacularly, inexplicably, mysteriously poor performances ever seen at a World Cup, failing to emerge from their pool and only scraping past lowly Georgia 14-10. When they followed this up with a disappointing showing in the 2008 Six Nations, it looked to be the end of the road for an aging team.
This pattern of falling just short mirrored that suffered by the Irish domestic teams for many years in the Heineken Cup. Munster’s quest for the trophy took on the dimensions of a crusade after losses in the 2000 and 2002 finals and regular defeats in the knock out stages. And as stalwarts such as Anthony Foley began to disappear and others began to lose their spark, it looked as though their apparent destiny would never be reached, that a mental block had developed which could not be overcome.
Leinster similarly underachieved for some time. What an anomaly it was that, in one of the best generations of Irish players for decades, the best of them, Brian O’Driscoll, had won nothing on the international stage with club or country 10 years into his career (counting the Magners League as a domestic tournament). Leinster had talent to burn but seemed to lack the grunt and application to make that final step.
This common theme running through the recent history of Irish rugby tells of a country that, perversely, has struggled to come to terms with just how good they are. After the dark years of the 1990s during which they were never contenders for anything other than the Wooden Spoon, they have given the impression that their biggest enemy has been themselves and their struggle to overcome their unsuccessful past.
That has all changed now. In 2006, Munster broke through and finally won the Heineken Cup. Since then they have rarely looked back. They regained the trophy in 2008 and every year are among the absolute favourites in the competition. Their established names such as Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan, Alan Quinlan and John Hayes have been supplemented by youngsters such as Tomas O’Leary and smart signings such as Doug Howlett and Paul Warwick.
Leinster have made a stout defence of the Heineken Cup which they won in 2009, earning themselves a home quarter final out of a tough pool. Even without the hugely influential Rocky Elsom who has returned to captain Australia, they have maintained their momentum.
The challenge is there for Ireland to do the same. They have finally broken the pattern of narrow underachievement and must now aim to emulate their clubs. Once Munster and Leinster had exorcised their demons, they pushed on and established themselves as perennially successful teams. Ireland have the talent and the setup under the estimable Declan Kidney to do likewise. Indeed they should be mortified if they do not given the paucity of their rivals’ performances in the autumn.
Irish rugby is in a strong position at present. Both Munster and Leinster, just when the doubting vultures were circling, were reinvigorated by an influx of new blood, talented young players such as Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Tomas O’Leary, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Keith Earls. This is evidence of how, in the Northern Hemisphere, nobody has made professional rugby work for themselves as well as Ireland. They were fortunate in that they already had a provincial system on top of their traditional clubs, all of which had their own identity and heritage. It is this which explains their success over the better-funded but artificially created Welsh franchises and they have used it to develop a conveyor belt of talent. The graduation from club to province to national team is perfectly staggered and ensures that players are ready before they are blooded.
The benefits of the provincial system are several. Automatic qualification for the Heineken Cup means that big names can be kept fresh rather than playing every week in the Magners League. And every Heineken Cup game is almost like an Ireland trial in which fresh players are able to thrive in the intense environment. The national team also only needs to blend players from 3 or 4 teams rather than 12 or 15. Contrast this with England where the structure of the Guinness Premiership dictates that in every game teams are scrapping for play off places and Heineken Cup qualification or fighting relegation. English players therefore play considerably more rugby than their Irish counterparts as there are so few dead games.
Ireland deserve credit for making professionalism work for them. And now they have made that breakthrough and believe in their ability and right to win silverware, they could be looking forward to many good years ahead. Success breeds success and the Grand Slam of 2009 could be just the start – the World Cup is less than 2 years away and this group of players should still be in tact.
But such comments summarise the new challenge with which Ireland now find themselves confronted. Hope has been replaced by expectation; the bar has been raised and nothing other than repeated success will do. And nor should it with the personnel they have at their disposal. Munster and Leinster managed to thrive once they got on a roll. Can Ireland themselves do the same?
By Stuart Peel