When yours truly was in the formative stages of understanding fare with the oval ball, it seemed like the Five Nations Championship – as it was then – generally ended up a tug of war between England and France. Be mindful, this was after the Irish glory days of the early to mid 1980s but before the last couple of decades when our lads and the Welsh appeared to have been a fraction in front of the rest. For a while at least.
Developments on the management side of the things were central to the next changes in terms of the pecking order of rugby in this part of the world. For example, Eddie O’Sullivan garnered a first Triple Crown in two decades (2004), his replacement, Declan Kidney, then oversaw a first Grand Slam triumph since 1949. Sport, like life, can be fickle. Just ask Warren Gatland!
The man from the land of the Fern was a bit of a failure as Irish coach but turned Wales into one of the most talented teams in world rugby. One which was unlucky not to contest at least one World Cup Final. That, of course, doesn’t even mention all of what ‘Gatty’ achieved with the British & Irish Lions. What is very noticeable, mind you, is that the men from The Valleys are but a pale shadow of what they were under the previous regime since the former All Black has departed for his homeland.
For their part, that 2004 breakthrough was the catalyst for Ireland to enjoy the best decade and a half in their rugby history. As Kidney built on O’Sullivan’s groundwork and then Joe Schmidt brought the same excellence to the Irish side as he had to ASM Clermont and Leinster beforehand. In some ways, Joe was more one of us than those who came after him. Thus, whenever the Westmeath All Black left, there was always going to a void left that would take quite the filling.
To that end, in fairness to the I. R. F. U., it was probably prudent to appoint Schmidt’s assistant Andy Farrell to replace the former Gaelic football wing forward. The incoming coach – who had starred with Wigan in Rugby League before switching codes – instantly seemed less likeable to the Lake County’s second most famous Joe! Not that such would be difficult. Very much in the Martin Johnson branch of manner.
If that perception is anywhere near right, it might explain the diminshment in the efficiency of the team’s output of late. Just as, all the while, England have regained their pomp and swagger under Eddie Jones. Our recent capitulation against France must be regarded as the lowest ebb at which Irish rugby has resided since the catastrophe that was the 2007 World Cup.
However, to that end, the advent of the Nations Cup – which is basically the Guinness Series but not with the Southern Hemisphere teams – couldn’t have had its inception at a better time. Perhaps as a chance for redemption for the more established troops but, even more so, an opportunity for fringe players or newcomers to stake their claim for leading roles in what is undoubtedly a period of transition for Irish rugby.
From that angle, it’s hard to know where to start. Between the mandatory demolition of the hapless Italians and the horror show in Paris, few could have done more to elevate their status than Hugo Keenan.
The Leinster youngster, who to me at least was unknown before having the type of debut that’s normally reserved for comic books. If there’s such a thing anymore. That said, he was far from alone in that sense. In the one seeing eye of this observer, Caelen Dorris has been head and shoulders – literally – above all the others. Though Keenan and Will Connors and the newly eligible James Lowe haven’t been far behind him.
Ballina’s Dorris is the latest to promote his candidacy for preference in the minefield of competition for places in the Irish second row and back row. They are two positions in which we have been truly blessed over the years. Without going back too far even, just think of some of the names – O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Toner, Henderson, Heaslip, O’Brien, Foley (RIP), Conan and Stander. The last named is, of course, still the pillar of the Irish pack but jostling around him for position around him is every bit as manic as it ever was with the likes of Dorris, Connors, Max Deegan, Josh Van Der Flier and Quin Roux vying for inclusion.
Having gushed with all that positivity, it must be said that, while Farrell’s charges have made plenty of progress in some ways, there’s a lot more for them to work on in other areas. Unusually – at least it would’ve been under Schmidt – discipline must be currently principal among them. The Irish pack absolutely decimated their counterparts in the set scrum, but, indiscipline in the loose at the breakdown won’t be as laxly dealt with going forward as was the case last night.
It’s hard to know what the long term plan with these series of games is, or if there is a plan. They certainly won’t have the same zip to them as would contests against the lads from the other end of the world. But then, cognisance of the humiliations dished out in the last couple of meetings should leave Johnny Sexton et al well fired up for the sight of the red rose.