Clark on Sport: October 21st, 2008

 
 

3 games played, 7 points earned – is it time to book tickets to South Africa? Michael Clark is not so sure…

Ireland’s victory over Cyprus last Wednesday was undoubtedly deserved but was decidedly unconvincing. If Trapattoni’s men are to have any realistic aspirations to qualify for the World Cup, they must markedly improve over the next twelve months. Seven points from three games is of course welcome but one has to remember that those seven points were secured against the three weakest teams in the group. Sterner tests await the Boys in Green.

The fist-pumping celebrations that Trap and Tardelli indulged in at the final whistle was indicative of the relief that they and their players felt after finally beating a team that had humbled Ireland in their last two meetings. Cyprus inflicted one of the greatest humiliations on the Irish sporting psyche when they embarrassed Steve Staunton’s charges two years ago.

Those psychological scars looked set to be completely healed after Robbie Keane’s early goal but the hectic and, at times, shambolic defending in the closing minutes did not inspire any confidence.

Trapattoni’s treatment of Sunderland’s Andy Reid has provoked intense and prolonged criticism from the media. Eamonn Dunphy’s power rant after Wednesday’s game was great television but it seems that he and others have come to believe that Reid’s inclusion is a panacea for all Ireland’s difficulties.

Yes, Andy Reid is undoubtedly a good player but he is not the new Beckenbauer or Pele. He’s a solid player for a mid to low-ranking Premiership club and is unlikely to win many international games on his own.

When one compares this Irish team to the great sides of the late eighties and early nineties, the limitations of the current batch of players are evident. While the front four of McGeady, Duff, Keane and Doyle is undoubtedly stronger than the equivalent Charlton-era players, there is no way that the likes of a Paul McShane or a Darren Gibson would ever have played their way into Jackie’s Army.

We must ask ourselves the question: how many of Ireland’s players who started last Wednesday’s game play regular first-team football for one of Europe’s great clubs? Only Robbie Keane and maybe Aidan McGeady tick that box. We cannot let unrealistic aspirations colour our judgement. Trapattoni does not have a big pool of players to choose from and even the greatest managers cannot turn hardworking iron into glittering gold through force of personality alone.

Yes, Trapattoni should have picked Andy Reid ahead of Darren Gibson last week. Yes, his assiduously defensive tactics are not aesthetically pleasing. Yes, his obstinacy on the Reid issue and others is disconcerting. But despite all these caveats, it appears that the disappointments and embarrassments of the Kerr and Staunton eras are behind us.

Trapattoni has seemingly imbued belief and confidence in his players that did not exist under Kerr and Staunton. Perhaps most importantly, he and his team have been dead lucky.

I have always been a fan of the International Rules concept and am very glad that the animosities of the last few encounters have been set aside to give the series another chance. Even I was forced to conclude that the violence that marred the last set of matches two years ago over-stepped the mark. The professional Australian players used their imposing physiques to crush the Irish players and Gaelic Football’s finest capitulated in the wake of the vicious assault.

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The whining of the Irish administrators, players and media did grate somewhat especially as complaints about Aussie brinkmanship only seemed to surface when Ireland were beaten and badly beaten they were in 2005 and 2006. The GAA itself is hardly devoid of discipline problems and it would not surprise me if a lot of the violent incidents that shocked the nation in 2006 were started by Irishmen. If you start a fight with an Australian colossus, don’t be surprised if you’re the man who’s carried off on a stretcher.

The real threat to the series’ long-term viability is the lack of a genuinely competitive product. The last three series have been one-sided affairs where one country or the other appeared wholly unprepared for the challenge that awaited them. Australia’s total dominance in recent years is unlikely to be overturned this Halloween but I can remember in 2004, when Clark on Sport was still in its infancy, I concluded that Ireland were likely to dominate for years to come after we had just beaten the mighty Australians by 50 points.

Seemingly clear advantages on paper often fail to translate into victory (just ask Nick Faldo). Seán Boylan and his men will be thirsty for vengeance. At the very least, I’m pretty sure we’ll win the majority of the fist-fights.

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Munster still look imperious and were very impressive against Sale last Sunday. Ronan O’Gara is back to his best and the backline’s flair now complements the fiery intensity of the pack. Very few teams can absorb the punishment that Munster mete out. The constant pressure and physicality exerted by the men in red takes its toll and generates a constant stream of opposition mistakes. Murrayfield in May awaits and it will be a very good and lucky team that stops them.

The moment that Clark on Sport predicted an early end to Leinster’s Heineken Cup campaign, it was all but certain, given my less prescient utterances in the past that Michael Cheika’s men would power to victories over Edinburgh and Wasps. I still don’t think that Leinster will win the ultimate prize in European club rugby this season but at least the dream can live on until the new year.

Brian O’Driscoll seems to have at last cast off the torpor that has limited his game in recent times, which makes the knee injury he sustained last Friday all the more disappointing. Rob Kearney looks like a world-beater and the Southern Hemisphere beef added by Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde allows Leinster to compete up front. Dr Felipe is still as exasperating as ever combining breathtaking brilliance with astounding foolishness. As long as Leinster depend on the wacky Argentine, they can expect many more years of disappointment.

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