October 19, 2012 1 Comment
By Beth O’Brien
O’Driscoll. Wood. O’Connell. O’Gara. O’Kelly. Horgan. Stringer. Wallace. Hayes. Hickie. Murphy.
These names have defined a generation of Irish rugby players ever since Brian O’Driscoll scored
a famous hat-trick to help his team beat France away in the 2000 Six Nations Championship. The
brutal efficiency of the Munster forwards and the expansive and exciting Leinster backs propelled
Ireland from the team that had floundered during the Five Nations of the 1990s to winners of four
Triple Crowns and one Grand Slam in the new century. This ‘Golden Generation’ became a team
that could compete with the best in the world. They became a thorn in England’s side, a victory in
2004 just months after England’s World Cup win heralding a period of dominance – 6 wins in the 8
following Six Nations meetings followed.
Fast-forward to 2012, and we see a very different picture. Many of the above players have retired
from rugby, are seeing out their twilight years in their clubs, or are simply well over ‘the hill’,
shadows of the players they were a decade ago. The 2012 Six Nations campaign was doomed
from the off with a heartbreaking loss to eventual Grand Slam winners, Wales. The team lacked
coherence, flair and, for the first time in a number of years, an aggressive physicality. One decent
performance against New Zealand in the summer was flanked by two comprehensive victories for
the home team, and all seemed gloomy at the end of last season for the men in green.
Last weekend saw the first stages of the 2012/13 Heineken Cup, the seminal tournament in
European rugby, and all four of Ireland’s provinces in action. Unfortunately, the geriatric plague
that is befalling Irish rugby was yet again apparent. In a rainy Stade de France, Munster limped to
a losing bonus point against Racing Metro. The Munster pack struggled to maintain possession,
whilst mistakes from Irish legend Ronan O’Gara directly led to Machenaud’s try. Disappointment
was evident on the face of Paul O’Connell when he was substituted on 60 minutes, in his first game
in 5 months. A stark contrast to the team who were twice Champions – a rumbling machine of a
forwards pack and one of the greatest kickers in world rugby in O’Gara.
Meanwhile in Dublin, Leinster snuck a victory against Heineken Cup newbies, Exeter Chiefs.
Nothing must be taken from the Chiefs – they produced a gutsy performance and played at an
exhausting pace that held Leinster on the back foot for a large portion of the game. However,
Leinster lacked a cutting edge and squandered chances. Ireland’s incumbent fly half, Jonathan
Sexton, failed to pull the strings as we have seen him do countless times before, and Leinster were
powerless to break down the formidable Exeter defence. Leinster’s Head Coach Joe Schmidt rued
missed chances, stating after the game that “it’s not often we get in the 22 four times in the first
half, and get nothing from it. That’s down to us, we have to be more accurate than that.” With a
significant portion of the Ireland back division, fans would hope they can be.
Admittedly, the all-Irish final of 2012 (Leinster 42-14 Ulster), and first-round wins for Ulster and
Connacht, may suggest there is life in the old dog yet. However, what distinguished the successes
of Munster and Leinster over the past 5 years was their translation to the success of Irish rugby.
When Munster and Leinster were the dominant Heineken Cup forces, Ireland won their first Grand
Slam in 61 years. The current contingent of young Irish players have yet to make the same impact
on the international, or provincial, stage as the heroes of their youth. Perhaps illustrative of this
point, British and Irish Lions 2009 tourist Keith Earls produces only glimpses of the brilliance
that merited his call up. He has struggled with the weight of expectation and the ‘Austin Healey
syndrome’ of nobody being sure what position he is best suited to playing. As a result, he has
become another on the long list of ‘nearly-but-not-quite good enough’ young Irish talent. With the
Lions tour of Australia coming in the summer, there are perhaps only a handful of Irish players guaranteed to make the Test 22 (Bowe, Kearney, Ferris, O’Connell and O’Driscoll, if the reader
would like the author’s opinion), and a number who may find themselves enjoying the midweek
fixtures or the action from their living rooms if their form does not improve.
In this Lions year, this Irish fan has to accept that her rugby heroes are simply not going to make
the plane. Munster may no longer be the Heineken Cup powerhouses they have been since the
competition’s inception. And the subject of the only poster on the author’s wall may be leaving
Ireland for a curtain call with the Waratahs in Super Rugby. There’s of course a long way to go
until the Lions set off for Australia, and one hopes there will be a significant Irish contingent on the
plane. However, unless the provinces of Ireland rediscover their form and build to a successful Six
Nations, it could be a long season to be an Irish fan.