“It’s 2007 all over again”. “Bridesmaids as usual”. “What has happened to this team?”. You’ve heard all of this over the last week or so. I saw someone on the fountain of information that is Twitter talk about how there are two different types of followers in sports, fans and supporters and I couldn’t agree more. Right now there seems to be a lot more fans than supporters.
When I say that, I don’t mean it in the “Oh are you even a real fan?” type of way. Well maybe I do a little but that’s not the main focus I want to take here. I’m an Irish rugby supporter (yes, it might come as a shock to you if you’ve read any of my previous posts on rugby but I’m just a supporter with an opinion 🙂 ). What that means, as opposed to me being a fan, is that I support the team through thick and thin. Am I unhappy with how 2019 has unfolded? Absolutely I am. Does that mean that I will now resort to cries of “Sure we were always shite anyway”? Absolutely not. There are some out there, even some who claim to be journalists, who say I am entirely in the wrong to take any stance of belief and hope that Ireland can come good this World Cup. To that I can only reply – why else would I watch it?
I remember back in 1999 when Argentina kindly sent us packing in the quarter finals I summed up my feelings on the game by exclaiming “Sure we’re crap anyway”. Thing is I didn’t even start to properly follow rugby until about 2006. At 11 years of age I could succinctly critique the Irish team with such sincerity. Why? Because that’s what everyone did. I was literally just repeating what I had heard said around me. One of my brother’s mates on that day cut me off sharpish to inform me that we’re not in fact crap, and he was right. Back then it was – and even more so now – a great Irish squad. I would argue it is currently better than it has ever been for average quality across the squad and merits earned in the last few years for sure.
So why do they seem to be floundering at yet another World Cup? There are many who say we just aren’t mentally cut out for the highest level of knock out rugby. To that I would say that it is of course present in the mind of every single player that we have never moved past the quarters. How could it not be? However the same could have been said about series wins in Argentina and Australia and wins on South African soil. Beating the All Blacks? This is a team that have broken down the mental barriers when they needed to. No, unfortunately Ireland’s current biggest problem is one we’re all too familiar with and one we can’t solve.
Since the last World Cup the Irish coaching outfit have done an excellent job in creating depth in all positions, out half included. That said, they’ve identified and cultivated excellent out halves in Carbery and Carty but neither of them are Jonathan Sexton. Putting Sexton’s ability as a player aside, it is now more apparent than ever before that his composure and leadership is absolutely crucial to Ireland’s success. I’ve no intention of throwing Jack Carty under the bus but the loss to Japan highlighted the importance of Sexton once again. It’s simple stuff but a player with Sexton’s big game experience would not have opted for the failed quick penalty cross to Earls. When Japan sucked Ireland into their style of play, Sexton would have brought calm to the game and he would have been finding touch deep in Japanese territory if only to give the pack a breather. Ireland now need 4 huge games from him if they are to progress to the ultimate prize, something he hasn’t done at international level for a long time.
So the question is – should we even believe? The 2007 comparisons really irk me the most. In 2007 Ireland were on a good run, got the warm ups wrong, then started to implode throughout the pools. Elements of this World Cup so far smell a little like that but an undercooked loss to a superb Japan doesn’t compare to near misses against Namibia and Georgia. Not even close. Again, I’m not trying to stand and scream “You fools, you blind fools” but there is greatness here in this team…I can’t even fathom the notion that this team just blows up and whimpers out against New Zealand or South Africa. As others have said, there’s a performance within this team yet to come. We’d hoped we were past the days of Ireland having that one big performance to hang their hat on. We’re not. That’s not a bad thing.