Saturday morning games are a strange species. That statement is meant in terms of matches on television. If an Irish team is involved, it usually means that whatever game it is takes place on the far side of the world.
That, in turn, generally ends up in disappointment more often than success for our representatives. Yes, there was the unforgettable Rugby World Cup win over Australia a couple of years ago, but the down days tend to outnumber the up. Whether it meant a desperately unlucky loss to New Zealand owing to a bad refereeing decision or a 60-0 drubbing.
You’d think, then, that Ireland might stand a better chance of scoring what would be another notable victory over southern hemisphere opposition on their own turf. After all, even allowing for the fact that some of our top players may have their best days behind them, the team should still be strong enough to – at the very least – give a good account of themselves against any opposition.
It’s only natural that enthusiasm and optimism will be ignited when a new coach comes in. Even more so when it’s somebody as high profile and successful as Joe Schmidt. What he achieved with Leinster was quite remarkable so naturally the hope when he was appointed was the similar good things would occur with the national team.
Positive vibes in that regard won’t change the facts that improvements are needed, to fix glitches that have been there for some time now, and remain. In truth, things have been regressing somewhat since the glorious times of the Grand Slam in 2009. And, while it’s very probable that Schmidt will improve the situation from where he inherited it, there appear to be striking resemblances with the recently installed management setup in soccer.
In that, for all the optimism Schmidt’s appointment understandably generated, the realisation that there are certain limitations within the player pool he has at his disposal is inescapable. If anyone thought it could be dodged, they got their riposte during much of the recent Guinness Series.
Until that innate Irish ability to exceed expectations when it seems most unlikely surfaced once again in the New Zealand game. Everything that was missing in previous games – particularly versus Australia – returned in abundance. Ferocious tackling, massive intensity at the breakdown, multiple, effective phases of pick and drive and an efficient and productive kicking game.
So vastly improved was their performance in fact that onlookers were wondering where it had come from. Wounded pride? Maybe. The Schmidt factor – both in terms of his general influence on the players and, even more so, unlocking the knowhow to really put it up to the All Blacks? Possibly.
Yet, for all the positivity the new coach’s arrival infused, there’s the gut wrenching outcome was that we once again came up short against one of the top teams. That it happened to be the best team in the world who haven’t lost all year should soften the blow.
However, after such a heroic effort and getting so close to actually pulling it off, it now feels like one of the worst and most painful defeats any team there’s an interest in suffered in a long time. So much so that you’d hope it won’t have left too much of a scar before the action resumes for them post Christmas.
Most disappointing of all was that – having put in mammoth work, played some exquisite rugby and left the game there for the taking for themselves – they were unable to close it out. Jonny Sexton will be – rightly or wrongly – be lampooned for missing what would’ve been the insurance score.
Personally, I’d have put the penalty in the corner, secured possession from the line out and went through as many phases of pick and drive as possible to run out the clock. Angst that such didn’t happen is only added to when it’s recalled that it wasn’t the first time a game wasn’t closed out that might have been.
And still, gut feeling is there’s no need to be totally downbeat. Maybe it’s just me – possibly engaging in a bit of, well, wishful thinking – but no matter how bad a situation may be – or even look – there has to be at least a morsel of positivity there somewhere. Though it may not seem obvious, there’s some for the rugby fraternity presently too.
Now, had circumstances been different, it’s fairly probable that I would’ve played some sport. In fact, there’s even a fair idea what positions would been favoured in different codes. For example, I always imagined myself being a midfielder or full forward in football, centre back in hurling, up front in soccer and either full back or fly half in rugby.
Hardly surprising, then, the most of the especially favoured players in different games reside in those spots. But, in terms of the rugby scene of late, it’s been two lads in the forwards – Jack McGrath and Dave Kilcoyne – that have caught the eye most. Their continued emergence, and that of Devin Toner, Luke Marshall and Dave Kearney gives plenty of cause for optimism.
Hopefully the forthcoming Six Nations will see the better parts of the last few weeks built upon.