Beating France can kill dark thoughts of 2007 all over again
Ireland have more depth and better coach now – but that doesn’t make victory a given
The Ireland squad stand together for Ireland’s Call before the match against France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup on September 21st, which the French won 25-3. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
If Ireland do nothing else this weekend against France, killing the notion that this is the 2007 all over again would count as a fine day’s work. Ever since Shane Horgan let it slip in his post-match analysis after the Italy game that he was starting to hear echoes of that World Cup, it’s been increasingly hard to hold the PTSD at bay. The horror. The horror.
One minute you’re idly shrugging your shoulders at a half-a-loaf win in Rome, next minute you’re back in Nam(ibia). They were mostly amateurs and they were supposed to lie down like soft summer grass after Brian O’Driscoll’s early try. But instead they ran in two scores in six minutes to scare the bejaysus out of everyone. And then it was Georgia and then it was France and then it was Argentina and Jesus Christ, Shaggy – was it really necessary to drag us all back here?
Suddenly, you’re waking up at night in a cold sweat. You’re feeling as edgy as Eddie O’Sullivan did when he pretended not to hear Sinead Kissane’s question about considering his position. You miss your stop on the train, lost in dazed recall of L’Equipe’s sleazy hatchet job on Ronan O’Gara. You tumble down a rabbit hole online, digging out that email that everyone in the country was sent with all the rumours in it. Drinking, fighting, eye-wiping, the lot. Shudder. Shiver. Stop!
Years ago on a college trip to the Curragh, the army lads advised us that if we were ever sent to report from a war zone, we were to change from our usual deodorant and to go with one that we would never use again once we returned to real life. Sadly, they never said anything about reporting from Parc des Princes. Nowadays, the merest whiff of a green can of Sure and Juan Martín Hernández is dropping goals from all sorts of angles and mileages.
Music doesn’t help either. As soon as the phone happens across anything from the second Arctic Monkeys album, all you can think of is Girvan Dempsey belting another garryowen into the clouds in the vain hope that Ireland will get somebody under it. You can’t hear In Rainbows without seeing Vincent Clerc skinning the Irish cover again and again. They took our World Cup, they took our record collections. The b******s.
Could it happen again? Absolutely. For one thing, Ireland are in nothing like the form at this point in proceedings that they were 12 years ago. Heading into the fourth match of the 2007 Six Nations, O’Sullivan’s team had just demolished England in Croke Park and but for a careless ending to the first game against France, they’d have been rolling towards a Grand Slam.
As it was, they were marginally the second best team in Europe and went on to pick up their third Triple Crown in four years. You had to go back over a year for their last poor performance. For the current team, you only have to go back eight days. So yeah, it’s entirely feasible that whatever is ailing them now won’t get mended in time for Japan.
The most pointless cliché in sport is the one that says you don’t become a bad team overnight. It overlooks the fact that you don’t need to become a bad team for it all to collapse in a heap. All you need is to become an uncertain team, a worried team, a team that can’t do right for doing wrong. The 2007 team had O’Driscoll, O’Gara and O’Connell, Horgan, Hickie and D’Arcy. If a side made up of that calibre of players and leaders can find itself spinning tyres in the mud, any team can.
There are some differences worth pointing out, though. Most obviously, Joe Schmidt has cultivated a far deeper squad than O’Sullivan did. Back then, famously, there was a defined first team and then an ocean of water dividing them from the finger-crossers. An abiding memory of that tournament was waiting in the mixed zone after the France match for players to come through only to see Alan Quinlan in his tracksuit, dutifully wheeling a couple of ice boxes to the team bus just for something to be doing.
Too many of that squad were detached to the point of alienation from the business end of things. Across the four games in France, Ireland started 19 different players. Already, after three games of the 2019 Six Nations, that number stands at 24. The game has changed, of course, and injuries have had their say. But clearly, Schmidt is intent on having access to – and making use of – a far broader selection of players in Japan.
More to the point, it was clear by the end of that World Cup that we had been fooling ourselves when it came to the level of quality in the Ireland squad. For the final game against Argentina, the bench line-up was Rory Best, Bryan Young, Malcolm O’Kelly, Neil Best, Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace and Gavin Duffy.
First 15 for first 15, there might not be a massive difference between this squad and the 2007 one. But once you broaden it out, this is objectively a better collection of players, many of them with Grand Slams, Heineken Cups and Lions appearances under their belts. It’s no libel on O’Sullivan to say they have a better coach this time around too.
Schmidt has dismissed all the 2007 talk as being irrelevant but generally it’s no bad thing to have a warning from history. Especially if it can be zapped at the earliest opportunity. Beating France with a convincing display this weekend would silence some dark voices.
Best of all, the search for a World Cup deodorant could begin in peace.