With tremors of a disappointing exit from the World Cup lingering in Irelands’ Six Nations campaign, Ryan Mackenzie believes it could be the beginning of the end for Irish rugby’s golden era.
– Wellington, October 8th 2011. Ireland lose to Wales in the Rugby World Cup. The average age of the Irish team is twenty-eight, while that of Wales is twenty-five. While the difference appears small, it must be noted that the vast majority of Ireland’s key players are on the wrong side of that average, but more Welsh players are on the right side. Such ominous signs indicate that the Welsh are the new up-and-coming side, while the Irish are on the last legs of what was once a great team. It is the end of an era, and it is obvious that things need to change.
– Dublin, February 4th 2012. The Irish side lines up against the Welsh with twelve of the fifteen players that lost in New Zealand less than four months before, with Fergus McFadden simply replacing an injured Brian O’Driscoll. Declan Kidney even favoured Donnacha O’Callaghan over his Munster teammate Donnacha Ryan, despite the fact that the latter starts ahead of the aging O’Callaghan for their province. What’s more, Kidney turns to his veteran out-half Ronan O’Gara in the closing minutes of an agonisingly close match when he perhaps feared that Johnny Sexton couldn’t deliver.
Not surprisingly, Ireland lost, and there was no reason why things should have been any different. Aside from a touch of luck, the same team with the same tactics is going to lose to the same team that outclassed them only a few months before. As Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
What was surprising, however, was the general pre-match opinion favouring the home side to take the spoils. Realistically this wasn’t a fair assessment, but perhaps, after a decade of success, Irish fans have gotten used to winning and have thus become blinded to the harsh reality that times are changing.
Our national side have lost six of their last ten tests and, if you exclude the two wins against minnows Russia and the United States, they have only won two first-class competitive matches, marking the worst streak since the dawn of the ‘Golden Era’. Despite this, however, Kidney seems reluctant to make changes or even try a new formula. Such conservative coaching has played to the Cork’s man advantage before, but he no longer enjoys the comfort of an established team, finding himself instead in a period of transition that he seems hell-bent on ignoring.
Astonishingly, the Sexton-O’Gara debate still rings on, despite the latter being nearly thirty-five years of age and having a limited future in the game. Kidney himself is a prominent figure in the O’Gara camp, having an affinity with the fly-half after years of service at Munster together. Yet this is a toxic debate for two reasons. Firstly, it stunts the development of the new generation, and indeed Sexton himself, and, secondly, it breeds a belief within the squad that the new generation don’t compare to their predecessors – a tenet which is, unfortunately, the truth.
With this lack of success, comparisons are increasingly being drawn between the national side and its provinces. Leinster are the current holders of the Heineken Cup and look solid again this year, while Munster also look to be staking their claim for the highest honour in the European game. The difference comes down to a different ethos, culture, and confidence.
An example of this occurred back in November. Munster were away to Northampton and down by a point in added time. They battered down the Northampton defence for a staggering forty phases of play before O’Gara slotted over an eighty-fourth minute drop-goal to seal a miraculous comeback. This is what Munster rugby is all about. When you contrast this to Ireland’s inability to work above ten phases at the end of the Wales match last week, the differing levels of success becomes somewhat more understandable.
Munster and Leinster have a steely confidence, a winning mentality that spurs them on when the chips are down. Their following two matches were won by a margin of only three points and then they began to roll. The Munster men topped Pool A by ten points, mimicking Leinster, who managed to win their group by a staggering twelve points.
In essence this success should translate over to the international game, but it doesn’t. Instead, Ireland appear to play with conservative shackles securely fastened to them by their coach. Kidney’s restrictive nature worked at Munster and during his early spell with the national team, but he now finds himself with a side that can’t do a whole lot more when called upon. It seems both ominous and obvious that the dark days of the eighties and nineties are creeping back into Irish rugby and little is being done to compensate for it.