Everyone now needs to take a good look at themselves - including the management
We bring fans, spend money, and not only never beat the All Blacks but help their development – perfect tourists really, writes GERRY THORNLEY
IRELAND HAVE had their highs in the 2011-12 season: the win over Australia and the clinical dissection of the fired-up Italians in the World Cup; the unlucky draw in Paris and the near miss in Christchurch. But they’ve also struck some bum notes, and each of the three campaigns has ended almost harrowingly; the quarter-final defeat to Wales, the 30-9 beating by England and now the 60-0 humiliation in Hamilton.
And the scars of Saturday’s all-time record defeat will require the most healing of all.
Back in 2006, Rory Best was an unused sub in both Tests but far from decrying Eddie O’Sullivan for leaving him on the bench, Best admits watching the All Blacks up close and personal was the wake-up call he needed. He resolved to reinvent his body in pre-season and his career took off.
Playing the All Blacks in their own back yard is the ultimate test.
Speaking in advance of his 13th and most harrowing defeat to the All Blacks, even Brian O’Driscoll conceded: “It’s a different brand they play here. It’s a different type of game that they play here, very different than anywhere else. Sometimes you wonder would you be the same player if you were born here. It’s a question you’ll never be able to answer but it’s so different from the brand I’m used to at home, growing up and in my professional career. Understanding that and confronting that is half the battle.”
If a talented young tennis player only played Nadal, Djokovic or Federer for months it would hurt but it would undoubtedly make him better. As the Best example highlights, if it doesn’t break you it can make you; the problem being that last Saturday’s seasonal finale will have broken several and maybe even this Irish set-up as a whole.
This doesn’t just apply to the greener members of the squad. Jonny Sexton has never looked so distraught in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s all-time record defeat. “No, never lost, never played in a game where we haven’t scored a point,” he said, his voice hoarse. “It was pretty demoralising, embarrassing. I don’t know what words to use but it’s pretty embarrassing.”
You wondered aloud to him how such an experience can be in any way beneficial. “We can learn from it, learn from how good they are, how clinical they are.
“I suppose we know a bit of the Kiwi mind from our Leinster coach. We thrive off it and we know what they talk about. They did the basics very well and that is what it comes down to. You can’t afford to drop the ball or just keep throwing the ball away time and time again and then miss tackles when you do. Everything that we spoke about not doing we did. It was the total opposite to last week.”
Asked what he learned himself, Sexton said: “I suppose you learn a lot about the guys around you. That’s probably the biggest thing. You learn a bit about yourself when things are going bad. It’s time to regroup, have a rest and then try and come back and be better next season.”
Accepting that it was pretty shocking and that Ireland could ill-afford their big players making the mistakes they made, Sexton searched for some crumbs. “We’ll take it on the chin and move on and try and build from this. It’s going to be tough but I suppose England, probably back in ’99/2000 , and it made a lot of the players,” said Sexton in reference to the so-called Tour From Hell, when an under-strength England lost 76-0 in Brisbane and 64-22 and 40-10 to the All Blacks, and 18-0 to the Springboks in Cape Town. (Note the improvement though.)
“Guys who were on that trip learnt a lot and it made them, they won the World Cup years later so we can regroup and go again.”
For sure this season has been an unprecedented drain on Irish resources; compounded by the end of a World Cup cycle. Ten, or one-third, of Ireland’s World Cup squad were ruled out of Saturday’s third Test due to injuries or retirement. This accentuated a huge turnover in playing personnel.
Rewind a little further, and Ireland effectively have a new team. Of the first-choice XV which won the Grand Slam three seasons ago, only Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney started last Saturday and of the 23 who played in that campaign, seven have retired and six were injured come last Saturday.
The net effect has been that Ireland have used 46 players in their 17 Tests in this unrelenting ’11/’12 season. As this tour underlined in abundance, Ireland don’t have 46 Test players. Some will be cast by the wayside after this tour, some will “regroup and go again”, and after an ill-sufficient four weeks’ holidays prior to a Lions season, the restorative powers of the provinces may, it has to be said, be a better place to start than the Irish set-up.
The issues raised by this tour far outweigh the potential positives. Cian Healy, Donnacha Ryan, Seán O’Brien and Rob Kearney fall into the latter category, others such as Conor Murray and Sexton remain the future and will hopefully benefit and rebound stronger, with others, having been exposed to rugby at the elite level, left to aspire to it. But only three players (Declan Fitzpatrick, Ronan Loughney and Simon Zebo) were blooded, and for a combined tally of two starts and two cameos off the bench.
Everyone now needs to take a good look at themselves, including the management, for good people and coaches though they all are, there has to be valid concerns as to whether they are the men to revive things after the scars of Saturday.
By comparison, the All Blacks could dip into their rich reservoir of talent and blood seven new caps with some of them here to stay. Where cover for the two totems, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, looked non-existent before, now Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett have emerged, the latter in turn back up to the more mature Aaron Cruden, while Aaron Smith heads a posse of new scrumhalves, with Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano beginning to fill a secondrow void.
It must be great being an All Black, and an All Black fan.
As for Ireland, we roll up, talk the talk, bring thousands of fans, add colour and noise and spend money, and not only never beat them but help a new All Blacks’ World Cup cycle to get up and running with three wins.
Perfect tourists, when you think about it.