In a sporting context, reality probably lies somewhere between George Orwell’s proclamation that everyone is equal, only some are more equal than others and Sean Boylan’s observance that Dublin don’t eat any better spuds than Meath do. To apply either theory to rugby at present is to magnify the effect Joe Schmidt has had since assuming control of the national team.
There has always been a sense that Ireland were capable of beating the southern hemisphere teams in recent times. They have done so on several occasions and were desperately unlucky not to garner victory against Australia in 1991 and New Zealand last year. The agonising manner of the latter defeat was, however, instructive. It was the nearest, in my lifetime anyhow, an Irish team had come to toppling the All Blacks. Play as good a rugby as was ever seen in Irish jerseys in so doing.
David Walsh recently opined that many opponents are thrown by the sight of the Haka alone. A point which carries credence. Mindsets do not, or cannot change immediately. So, cognisance of the brilliance displayed by the Irish team in their most recent triumvirate of outings surely necessitates an acceptance that the ethos espoused by the coach has been manifest in allowing the depth of talent at his disposal to flourish.
Newcomers entering an environment where reputations, game plans and greatness are fairly well nailed down surely often find it difficult to reach establishment therein and affect their imprint on same. Especially with so many pillars of the establishment still exhibiting traits which fully endorse the meritorious nature of their selection.
If anything, the steadfast, warrior-like exuberance of players such as Jamie Heaslip, Mike Ross, Rory Best, Gordon D’Arcy, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney has allowed those in pursuance of a foothold within the inner sanctum to be demonstrative of the reasons they should to included therein.
And then there’s Paulie! The point was often made before that it’s a sign of the impact someone has had in or the influence which they wield on their chosen area of excellence when mere mention of their Christian name or even nicknames is enough to guarantee instant recognition and – most cases equally – admiration. Think ‘Gooch’ (Cooper) in Gaelic football or AP (McCoy) in Racing or Rory (McIlroy) in Golf. Paul O’Connell has long held similar status in rugby. Surpassed it in fact. And the legend and aura surrounding O’Connell is, if anything, attaining more mystique the longer he plays on.
I reckon the man could inspire polar bears to sunbathe. Seriously, though, he defies logic on so many levels in maintaining standards of excellence that it’s only natural and expected to see the budding talents around him flower in his presence. Mind you, they’re most likely mindful that he would indeed instil the fear of the Almighty into them if they didn’t conform to his standards of and demands for greatness!
It is, however, of glowing testament to the undoubted football abilities and fabrics of character of those who constituted the infusion of freshness that, rather than being overawed being pitched alongside such bastions that they have, in fact, established status of their own during what was a very productive back end to the year for Schmidt’s side.
Top level sport is a place of finite margins. Maybe all things in life are. Everyone recalls Jonny Sexton’s miss against the All Blacks last year. And the world beaters emerging with their blushes intact thanks to a second chance penalty, granted after the kicker had been charged.
In the maelstrom of emotions engulfing perhaps the most galling Irish sporting ‘What might have been’, how or why the dastardly penalty came about was almost unknown. The adjudication of Nigel Owens – gentleman referee and inspirational individual – that Jack McGrath had gone off his feet at a ruck broke the hearts of a nation.
What it may have done was broken the unquestionable momentum then enveloping McGrath’s career. That it has instead driven the player to establish himself as a quickly burgeoning force with club and country is tribute enough to the characteristics that have epitomised the contributions of those striving toward establishment in the past three games.
McGrath is, to my mind, slightly more advanced in the solidity of assuredness regarding his prospects going forward than some of the others. That said, Robbie Henshaw must rank foremost among those who may have engineered an advancement of their standing within the group thanks to shifts put in.
Indeed, suspicion is that the pain caused by the coach’s appendicitis might pale in comparison to the headache generated by consideration of the best alignment of the working materials at his disposal. Not a bad problem to have.