Gerry Thornley: Painful World Cup exit should not detract from decade of success

Irish rugby reached unprecedented heights over the last ten years

The scale of the defeat by the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-finals ensured the most bountiful decade of all  ended on a decidedly bum note. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The scale of the defeat by the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-finals ensured the most bountiful decade of all ended on a decidedly bum note. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

That was the decade that was, and while it may have ended on a thoroughly anti-climactic and even slightly tawdry note, it’s worth reminding ourselves that it was still the best decade Irish rugby has ever known. And by a distance.

It’s also worth recalling where Irish rugby was coming from, given a less than celebrated history. The WW2-curtailed but relatively bountiful 1940s, with the Grand Slam of 1948 and the Five Nations title defence of 1949 by Jackie Kyle and his team, stand out as a wild exception rather than the rule.

There followed a third outright win in the Five Nations over a four-year period in 1951, but that would be the only title of the 50s, and would be followed by two wooden spoons in that decade.

The 1960s were even grimmer, with no title successes and not one, or two, or even three wooden spoons, but a whopping four. This makes the upturn in the 1970s all the more striking, when the class of 1972 were denied a crack at a Grand Slam after beating France and England in Paris and London, only for the Scots and Welsh not to travel due to the Troubles.

Fergus Slattery remains the most vocal, but not the only, player from that team who believes they were good enough to win a Slam. That theory was given some substance when the five-way share in 1973 was followed by Ireland’s first outright title since 1951 in ’74.

The so called Dad’s Army pack featuring Slattery, Willie Duggan and John O’Driscoll in the back-row, and guided by Ollie Campbell (who scored 46 of Ireland’s 66 points) at his imperious best, delivered another title in 1982, as well as sharing the title with France a year later.

Largely rebuilt in 1985 under Mick Doyle, especially up front and with a new half-back pairing of Michael Bradley and Paul Dean, Ireland reclaimed the title. Somewhat typically of a wildly fluctuating decade however, this followed the wooden spoon of 1984 and there would also be four of those in the 80s.

The 1990s, as the IRFU and Irish rugby struggled to adapt to the advent of professionalism, were as grim as the 1960s, with no titles, and another four wooden spoons, with three in a row from 1996 to 1998.

This only tells half the story, for Ireland never finished out of the bottom two in the entire decade in the Five Nations. In 40 games, Ireland registered just eight wins – the back-to-back victories over England in 1993 and ’94 a beacon of light in an otherwise bleak time. So when a modern-day performance, such as any of the defeats in 2019, is described as the worst ever this rather ignores vast swathes of Irish rugby history.

The 2000s marked a significant upturn in Irish fortunes, with a wooden spoon -free decade in which the Triple Crowns of 2004, 2006 and 2007 eventually led to Ireland’s second Grand Slam ever and first in 61 years on that draining, momentous day at the Millennium Stadium in 2009.

Exceptional generation

There’s no doubt that, with the emergence of an exceptional generation of mostly Munster forwards, the Peter Stringer-Ronan O’Gara half-back combination and, of course, Brian O’Driscoll and other brilliant – mostly Leinster – backs, Warren Gatland, Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney all helped to make Ireland more consistent during their tenures.

Joe Schmidt’s timing on the scene coincided with a continuing production line of fine Test-match players, and by then Munster (in 2006 and 2008) as well as Leinster in 2009 had also scaled the Heineken Cup heights.

Under Schmidt, Leinster won back-to-back Heineken Cups in 2012 and 2013, as well as a Magners League/European Challenge Cup double in 2013 before succeeding Kidney in 2013. This had followed Ireland’s worst Championship performance since 1999, winning just one of five games and finished fifth after losing to Italy for the only time in the Six Nations.

Ireland were, of course, revived, winning back-to-back championships for the first time since the late 1990s with the titles of 2014 and 2015, each dramatically secured on the respective final days in Paris and Edinburgh.

In the last six years, Ireland have also finished in the top half of the Six Nations table every year and, despite the retirements of O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and others, the team was again largely rebuilt in delivering a third Grand Slam in 2019.

Instead of world-class Lions captains at outside centre and lock, greatness emerged in other positions, most obviously at half-back in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton.

Throw in the first two wins over the All Blacks, a first ever Test win in South Africa, a first series win in Australia since 1979, not to mention Leinster’s three European Cups, their four Pro12/Pro14 titles in the 2010s, along with one each by Munster and Connacht, and by any yardstick this was the most high-achieving decade in the history of Irish rugby.

In each of the last three World Cup cycles, Ireland delivered firstly a Grand Slam, secondly back-to-back titles and thirdly those wins over the All Blacks, South Africa and Australia as well as another Grand Slam.

Bountiful decade

Yes, the scale of the evisceration by the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals ensured the most bountiful decade of all still ended on a decidedly bum note.

After the unprecedented highs of 2018, the same core group of players struggled with life in the more rarefied air atop the world order, as Steve Hansen suggested might be the case when Ireland ended last year with their win over the All Blacks. It’s hard to stay at the top, not least perhaps for an Irish side.

In truth, only the All Blacks have managed to do it, because they live with those expectations all the time.

Yes, the post-mortem confirms that mistakes were made, that a good team ended up playing badly, and that the very public targeting of a first World Cup semi-final made the latest quarter-final exit all the more painful.

But it was still the best of decades.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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