It has often been said here before that the occasion of Meath’s ten-point defeat to Dublin in the 1995 Leinster Final was one of the few occasions tears were shed here at a match. Reasoning was (a) the manner of the defeat (b) the fact that it was the third year on the spin the boys in blue had beaten the Royals and (c) a realisation that it was most likely Colm O’Rourke’s last outing in green and gold.
That came back to mind recently in the aftermath of Ireland’s very limp exit from the Rugby World Cup. Their arrival at said juncture could, realistically, scarcely be deemed that great a shock. However, like other occurrences in life which there have been too many of lately, when they finally arrive, you might think you’re ready, but you never really are.
As was best evidenced by the outpouring of emotion toward – and more pointedly from – Rory Best as he departed centre stage in green for the final time following Ireland’s ruthless deconstruction by New Zealand in the quarter final. Now, there was a time when interest in rugby from this seat was sporadic at best. Believe it or not, similar sentiments once applied to horse racing.
Thankfully, both scenarios have altered drastically in the interim. With the rugby, conversion was mostly down to my brother Des living and working in Limerick – where devotion to the oval ball nearly borders on the religious – for five years. And, even at that, it wasn’t until a first trip to Thomond Park was embarked upon in 2013 that the oval ball ‘bug’ really bit.
That’s not say one has suddenly become an aficionado, but, while hookers of the past such as Ciaran Fitzgerald and Terry Kingston and Keith Wood are easily recalled, it will be admitted that it’s only in the last few years that the magnificence and longevity of the Ulster player were properly appreciated.
Whether Best shot to prominence due to the prosperity of the national team or the opposite was the case is a bit like the chicken and egg situation. Suffice to say they’ve equally been as beneficial to each other. What has been noticeable – even without sentiment-tinted lenses – is that the levels of the captain’s output had been maintained to commendable standards even when other components in an aging machine were beginning to creak.
It could be said that the suckler farmer’s retention in the starting team has as much to do with a dearth of competition for the Number 2 jersey as anything else. For all Sean Cronin’s industry and energy – particularly in open play – would obviously be beneficial to any team, but, a lot of the time I’d throw the ball straighter than the Clare man!
However, such a summation would short-change Best’s productivity right until the end. While that of those around him dissipated notably, the skipper drove on to the last. It appeared to be a case of those lines from Kippling about keeping your head coming through. From a long way out, cracks in the overall façade have been showing.
To invoke a horse racing analogy, if you draw a line of form through Ireland, the All Blacks and England, it’s painfully clear to see how much what is now formerly Joe Schmidt’s side have regressed. From the time they made it back to back victories over the silver fern, they limped through a dire Six Nations campaign before being annihilated by an England outfit in a warm up game who had ran Steve Hansen’s team to a point last back end and, would, in fact, have beaten them were it not for the late – and somewhat harsh – chalking off of a try.
One hates using the word ‘blame’ in these situations but there always has to be a reason why they occur and while it might seem decidedly harsh given the contribution he has made to Irish rugby, for this writer at least, it goes back to Schmidt. Firstly because I don’t believe announcing his departure when he did was the wisest course of action and secondly out of a sense that he may have shown too much loyalty to some of his admittedly greatest warriors.
Ireland’s exit from events in the Far East makes the end of an era for the sport in this country surely. And the shortcomings in Japan – repeated though they may be in the context of a World Cup – cannot detract from what has been achieved during our own New Zealander’s time in charge.
Incoming coach Andy Farrell will still have the nucleus of a good team with which to work. Players such as Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander, Gary Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale to assume leadership roles within the group – particularly if the assumption that Best’s may not be the only high-profile departure proves to be correct.
It was said somewhere in the immediate aftermath of the quarter final demolition that the forthcoming Six Nations has now assumed even greater importance for Farrell. Perhaps by way of assessing what he has to work with as much as anything else. One thing is certain, though, the era which has just ended will take some topping.