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Gerry Thornley: Irish rugby risks overlooking current successes through World Cup obsession

Focus on 2023 World Cup diminishes arguably the greatest achievement in the history of Irish sport

Last July, lest we forget, Ireland completed a truly historic 2-1 comeback series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand. This was, arguably, the biggest achievement ever by an Irish rugby team, eclipsing even the three Grand Slams of 1948, 2009 and 2018, as Brian O’Driscoll, for one, maintains.

There is even an argument for claiming that it is the greatest achievement ever by any Irish sports team, as Matt Williams has suggested. Leaving aside individual achievements, such as in the Olympics and so forth, perhaps its only real rival is the Republic of Ireland reaching the World Cup quarter-finals at Italia ‘90.

To put it in context, only four international rugby teams had previously ever achieved the feat in 62 series hosted by the All Blacks dating back almost 120 years, and only three countries had done so once each in 50 attempts.

South Africa have won a series in New Zealand once (in 1937) in eight attempts, Australia once (1986) in 11 attempts and France once (1994) in ten attempts, as well as the British & Irish Lions (1971) in a dozen attempts. England, Wales, Scotland and Argentina have never done so in a cumulative 16 series hosted by the All Blacks against them and, of course, neither had Ireland in their five previous series in New Zealand.


It wasn’t just that Ireland had lost all dozen Tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand before last July, it was the nature of those defeats. Heavy beatings were commonplace. New Zealand attitudes toward Irish rugby, understandably so, were dismissive, and never more so than after the record 60-0 win in Hamilton by the All Blacks to close out the 3-0 Test series whitewash there a decade previously. What’s more, this narrative didn’t look like changing much after the All Blacks won the series opener at Eden Park by 42-19.

In recovering to win the second and third Tests, Ireland climbed to number one in the world rankings on the back of 15 victories in their last 17 matches. By no stretch of the imagination could this be called a fluke.

Admittedly, the series win came with a couple of caveats. The first was that the All Blacks’ subsequent results devalued Ireland’s series win, or at any rate brought the achievement into question.

New Zealand then suffered a fifth defeat in six Tests when beaten by South Africa in their opening game in the Rugby Championship, slipping to an all-time low of fifth in the world rankings. They would also suffer a first ever defeat at home to Michael Cheika’s Pumas in Christchurch in round three.

However, in each instance they responded a week later with, first, a thrilling 35-23 win over the Springboks in Johannesburg and then a ruthless 53-3 revenge mission over Argentina in Hamilton. Granted, the All Blacks were a tad fortunate with Mathieu Raynal’s decision to penalise Bernard Foley for time wasting with a 79th minute penalty in the prelude to Jordan Barrett’s match-winning try in Melbourne.

Even so, last Saturday’s latest evisceration of the Wallabies at Eden Park ensured that the All Blacks retained the 2022 Rugby Championship. So, in addition to the aforementioned weight of history, Ireland won a series against the ultimate champions of the southern hemisphere.

The second caveat is that hoary old chestnut: Have Ireland peaked too soon in a World Cup cycle?

Admittedly, Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton have somewhat led the charge in placing the summer’s monumental series win in the context of the 2023 World Cup. Yet there is a real danger in all of this of becoming obsessed with breaking through that World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling, much as New Zealand increasingly did with winning the World Cup after coming up short in 1991, ‘95, ‘99, ‘03 and ‘07 before, gripped by the weight of expectation, stumbling over the line in the 2011 final at Eden Park against France, and devaluing much of the brilliant rugby and achievements in between.

For sure, it would be a huge monkey off the collective back of Irish rugby were they to win a World Cup quarter-final. But would winning a quarter-final and losing a semi-final be better than a Grand Slam, or winning a series in New Zealand?

This 2022-23 season has already been referred to as a World Cup season, or a World Cup year. It is neither. Thankfully, there is another hiatus next summer before the World Cup, which takes place early in the 2023-24 season.

For the clubs, players, officials and volunteers in the 50 clubs who kickstart the men’s All-Ireland League this coming weekend, there are far more pressing concerns, and the World Cup is a long, long way away.

This is arguably the most interesting season for the provinces in some time too, with the United Rugby Championship now more competitive than ever given the advent of the South African sides, and ditto the latter’s debut in the European competitions, not to mention Saracens being back in the Champions Cup.

Then there’s the November Tests, which will begin with a meeting of the world’s number one ranked side and the reigning world champions on November 5th, when hopefully the Aviva Stadium will liven itself up a little.

This is followed by home games against Fiji and Australia, before a Six Nations in which Ireland host reigning Grand Slam champions France on February 11th and England in the final game of the last round on March 18th at 5pm.

For all Ireland’s successes since 2009, the last time an Irish team was coronated as champions in Dublin was against England in 1985, Mick Kiernan’s drop goal and all that. Imagine, therefore, if Ireland were going for the title against England in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend, in what is likely to be Johnny Sexton’s Six Nations’ swansong? Indeed, the prospect of the Challenge Cup and Champions Cup finals taking place in the Aviva Stadium next May 19th and 20th is also a huge carrot for Sexton, Leinster and the Irish provinces. There is much to look forward to in this 2022-23 season.

Sportspeople have long insisted that the key to success is living in the moment, and maybe we should start heading that advice. If you obsess too much about the future, you’re in danger of missing out on the present.

PS: My friend and press box colleague Ruaidhrí O’Connor is running in the Dublin City Marathon on October 30th in honour of his son Malachy, who died at the age of 11 weeks in April this year, and in aid of Crumlin Children’s Hospital, in gratitude for the care shown to their son, himself and Siobhán.

Ruaidhri O’Connor is fundraising for Children’s Health Foundation Crumlin (