As England were applying some semblance of shape to their World Cup challenge against Samoa, the post mortems were beginning in another beleaguered European rugby nation. Ireland must beat Argentina next week by more than 7 points and must score 4 tries in the process and on present form this looks rather unlikely. If they fail, they will be on their way home to lick their wounds and face the angry questions of their countrymen who will demand to know how a team widely fancied to challenge in the tournament’s latter stages sank to the ignominy of a first round exit.
Probably the biggest mystery of this tournament so far is what on earth has happened to Ireland. The plight of the champions has attracted more column inches but nobody can say that they did not see England’s stuttering performance coming. Yet a mere 6 months ago, Ireland only missed out on a Grand Slam through a late French try and then lost the championship due to a similar Gallic late-show. They were fancied by many as the leading European challengers for the World Cup after recording impressive victories against South Africa, Australia and England in quick succession.
Come the World Cup though, and it has all gone wrong. They have lacked any form of cohesion and their basic skills appear to have deserted them. I do not know the precise number of handling errors they committed against Namibia but I doubt it made pretty reading for Eddie O’Sullivan. The urgent, abrasive forward game usually engineered by their excellent back row has been replaced by a series of uncertain and ponderous performances and their lineout, previously without peer in the game, has misfired badly. At the same time, their quick and skilful backs have played as though no one has had the courtesy to introduce them to each other with Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy strangely subdued.
One struggles to find excuses for this. At least England’s lack of cohesion can be attributed to the fact that, for a variety of reasons, the team has barely played together before. Rewind to the 2000 Six Nations though, and you find Ireland fielding a back line of Stringer, O’Gara, Henderson, O’Driscoll, Horgan, Hickie and Dempsey. Sound familiar? With the exception of D’Arcy replacing Henderson, this is the same as their first choice back line at the start of the tournament and makes the utter desertion of form all the more bewildering.
2007 was supposed to be Ireland’s year, the year when the strongest Irish team for many years would write its name on rugby’s honours board. Mind you, the same was said in 2005 and 2006. This Irish side seems destined to be remembered as a ‘nearly’ team who never quite fulfilled their potential consistently and went out of a World Cup in which they were supposed to be a genuine force with a whimper. This team has been capable of rampant performances, none better than their demolition of England in the 2007 championship. But they never achieved the necessary degree of consistency and seemed to develop something of an inferiority complex when confronted with France or New Zealand. They have never done themselves justice against these two opponents, with Friday’s match with France being a further demonstration of this.
Next week Ireland do have the opportunity to answer these questions and at least their fate remains in their own hands. They also have a core of Munstermen who have been in this position before in the Heineken Cup and have passed the test with flying colours. However it would take an extraordinary reversal of form for them to achieve something similar against Argentina, especially without the Thomond roar spurring them on. If Ireland’s name does appear in the quarter final line up in this tournament then we will have seen a mightily impressive performance.
There have been reports of unrest in the camp with some players unhappy that their camp is so far from any form of life. It would also appear that some have been unsettled by the press reports of Ronan O’Gara’s personal problems but for a group of professional sportsmen these are not adequate excuses for such good players in an established team performing with such ineptitude. I am sure that we will learn more in the coming weeks but for now we can only speculate why this team has fallen so far in such a short period.
By Stuart Peel