Ireland must acknowledge and embrace the favourite tag

But for the punter: right now I still wouldn’t put a cent on Ireland at 1-5 to beat Italy

Great expectations ahead of Six Nations and World Cup. Photograph: Eric Luke Staff Photographer

Great expectations ahead of Six Nations and World Cup. Photograph: Eric Luke Staff Photographer

 

When sports-betting’s your thing the sound of the Irish rugby balloon getting inflated by public expectation comes with the erotic hiss of potential easy money. Sometimes it isn’t a question of being able to afford to bet against Ireland so much as not being able to afford not to.

It’s a little different now the game’s all carbo-lactic-professional but ahead of Ireland’s opening Six Nations match of 2015 against Italy the old reflex to back the opposition until the “guys-in-green” get to be plucky underdogs again is hard to ignore.

Plenty of you won’t remember Lens in 1999, when club-house bars throughout the country harrumphed in indignation at an unheralded Argentina somehow having the cheek to dump Ireland out of the World Cup.

And a couple of World Cups later proved it wasn’t just the “gluggy-gluggy- gluggy-10-pints-before-the-match” era that produced evidence of a fundamental Irish unease with the favourite’s tag.

At the height of the “Tiger’ folly in 2007 the only markets joy some of us traitorous opportunists got was in beating the spread as lowly Georgia “beat” Ireland 10-14. As for the last World Cup in 2011, after that momentous success over Australia, the only shrewd bet was on when the greatship-expectation would sink faster than a house-price.

So instead of dismissing such behaviour as that of Quislings peeing on the national mood the question really should be asked as to why a rational punter might recognise that 1-5 about Ireland beating Italy is a bet to avoid like the plague while simultaneously acknowledging that 15-8 about Ireland winning the Six Nations overall mightn’t be the worst wager in the world.

Because the reason that generous price is available on Ireland is simple: Messrs Power, Ladbroke and Hill know how to exploit a mainstream mood but they also possess sufficient gimlet-eyed realism to recognise that an Irish team’s frailty under favouritism has far from been consigned to historic cliche just yet. If it were there would be no 15-8 about.

Ireland are the defending Six-Nations champions. They enter the 2015 championship on the back of an unbeaten November series against two of the southern hemisphere big guns. Europe’s traditional two superpowers, England and France, have to come to Dublin. And reverberating behind it all is a rising tide of “you-never-know” public hope about making the World Cup Final in October.

That’s a recipe to theoretically make Ireland a shade of odds-on. But no one believes the theory yet, especially not bookmakers who know betting is essentially about value, not hope or desire and certainly not patriotism.

Labelling it a distraction

Joe Schmidt

Last November, prior to taking on Australia and South Africa, Schmidt encouraged his players to embrace expectation, quite properly take it as a professional compliment, proof of their outstanding abilities. And he was right. So why change tune now? Yes he has to say something at a press-conference but why not front up as before and say bring it on?

It’s hard not to suspect the difference is the expectation that those November tests has generated and it is the Irish team’s response to those expectations that will be the most intriguing aspect to the upcoming six weeks.

Is this a “top-top” team, to paraphrase Alex Ferguson, or one prone to generating masses of yet more punditry colonoscopies about post-colonial hang-ups preventing mother Ireland from fulfilling her sporting destiny. It’s not just a desire to avoid that that will make even sceptics hope for the “top-top” answer because this fondness for the underdog blankie is getting really old.

Great teams don’t require such excuses

“You have to acknowledge the pressure. But you can’t ignore it. That’s the mistake a lot of athletes make,” the great US runner Michael Johnson once said.

Ultimately, that comes down to attitude, admittedly easier to quantify in an individual sport than a team one, but the great teams have it too;, those teams which endure and possess the internal leadership which makes them comfortable with being expected to win, and most of all expecting themselves to win.

In 2009, Ireland’s Grand-Slam side briefly threatened to be such an outfit but time only emphasises how incredibly quickly that momentum fizzled out.

This team haven’t won a Slam. It hasn’t got O’Driscoll. And O’Connell is apparently on the fade. But rarely if ever has Irish rugby invested so much in a side. So is the response to that expectation going to be relish or rattle; cocky or cowed?

Even those of us unlikely to lose too much sleep over the answer recognise how insomniac much of the rest of the country will be, so in a spirit of patriotic community let’s acknowledge it really would be great if Ireland do what they’re capable of and secure back-to-back championships. And you never know; there might be a Slam in it too. And come October, well, you never know about that either.

But right now I still wouldn’t put a cent of your money on Ireland at 1-5 to beat Italy. As for the big-picture price, let’s see what happens in Rome first. And there you have it - the perfect each-way logic for doing nothing!

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