Gerry Thornley: 'Boring' Ireland are victims of their own success

Team has produced exciting rugby and scored a whopping total of 17 tries so far

Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring one of his two tries against Scotland. This Irish team has already scored five more tries than the 2009 Grand Slam winners.    Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring one of his two tries against Scotland. This Irish team has already scored five more tries than the 2009 Grand Slam winners. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

Boring, boring Ireland?

Okay, so Matt Williams only used the adjective once, not twice as the chant goes. But even so the description, coming in the immediate aftermath of a third bonus point win in a row which would ultimately seal the 2018 Six Nations title, must have caused a wry smile, or worse, out in Carton House, not least to Joe Schmidt.

Revelling in his role as agent provocateur, the TV3 panellist and sometime Irish Times columnist (you can read him in these pages again next Saturday!) certainly stirred things up.

Aside from the three bonus point wins in a row, one imagines Schmidt and Co would point to the bare facts of scoring 17 tries in three successive home games as evidence to the contrary.

For sure Matty’s comment was probably, in part, meant as a compliment, however backhanded, and came with the rider that this Irish team have completely changed the essence of what Irish teams used to be. The romantic Irish underdog is dead and gone, replaced as it has been by this ruthlessly efficient machine which is now unbeaten in five Championships and 13 games at home in the Six Nations.

That’s unprecedented.

They’ve also won 11 Tests in a row, which is also unprecedented. They don’t give away many penalties. Most un-Irish. They justify the tag of favourites. Yerra stop. Even less Irish.

Perhaps the kernel of the matter is this: Winning is Boring.

Save for rarities such as Barcelona or, back in their pomp, say France in rugby or, of course, the Arsenal Invincibles, there are few exceptions. One would venture that Bayern are considered singularly boring in the rest of Germany outside of Munich. Ditto Celtic in Scotland, or for that matter Dublin beyond the Pale.

The Irish class of 2009 have correctly gone down in folklore as one of the great Irish sides, having delivered only a second Grand Slam in history, and a first since 1948, all the more so as it was the ultimate reward for a relatively golden generation including Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes, Peter Stringer, Jamie Heaslip, Donncha O’Callaghan et al.

Ireland’s eight most-capped players of all time were in the matchday squad that sealed the deal in the Millennium Stadium that day. So too the joint 11th most capped players, Gordon D’Arcy and Rob Kearney. It would have been a crying shame had they never delivered a Grand Slam, and it was a blessed relief when they did so, especially in the dramatic manner they achieved the feat.

Cardiac team

Les Kiss called them a cardiac team, and so it is that we remember the Ronan O’Gara drop goal and Stephen Jones’ ensuing long-range penalty attempt which fell just short for Wales.

They played some fine rugby, not least in the opening win over France when you think of the tries by Heaslip, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, and Tommy Bowe doing his Tommy Bowe thing from O’Gara’s crosskick in Cardiff. But they knew how to burrow over from close-range too, witness O’Driscoll’s impersonation of a mole against England and Wales.

They weren’t exactly the Harlem Globetrotters.

Their success was founded largely on the meanness of a well-constructed defence, which conceded three tries in five games. And good on them.

This Irish team has already scored five more tries than the 2009 tally of 12 and, thus far anyway, aren’t remotely as efficient defensively. They’ve already conceded eight tries in four games and generally given their supporters the heebie-jeebies whenever the opposition move quick ball into the outside edges. What’s boring about that?

There were fewer complaints, and not much of a style debate, back in 2009. Maybe it’s a question of who has the conch, or the TV microphone. More likely it’s that this current vintage have become victims of their own success, and are being judged through the prism of three titles in five years.

In actual fact, they’ve already scored more tries in this Championship than the champions of 2014 (who scored a riotous 16) and the post-O’Driscoll class of 2015 (who scored a mere eight, and conceded only three).

Here’s another thought; the 17 tries scored so far equals Ireland’s all-time record in one Six Nations, achieved in 2000, 2004 and 2007. By the by, they still finished third, second and second in those years. Irish players and fans alike would preferably take a title any day, and would happily take a 9-6 win in Twickenham next Saturday.

Endgame

Certainly the most entertaining endgame to date was Ireland’s tryless win in Paris courtesy of that 41-phase, 83rd minute 45-metre drop goal by Johnny Sexton.

The win over Italy was a relatively free-flowing try fest, and the Ireland-Wales game wasn’t far behind, when Ireland fashioned six line breaks, many from within their own half, when playing some adventurous rugby from the off. It was good, positive running rugby which earned the close-range pressure which yielded tries by Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy and Cian Healy, and there was yet more drama up until the final play.

True, Ireland aren’t of a mind to take quick throws, use the full width of the pitch with two passes for a counterattack, or risk long passes and offloads to the extent of the daring Scots last Saturday.

But despite another new midfield combination, Ireland’s ambitious rugby of the first half floundered on edgy mistakes, so Ireland tailored their game in the second and where there were seven handling errors in the first period, there were none in the second. That’s being adaptable. That’s smart rugby.

There wasn’t much complaining when the vintage Munster heroes of 2006 and 2008 converted close-range pressure into tries through their pack like feeding time at the zoo. Similarly, there was joyous relief amongst the crowd in watching Ireland turn the screw from close-in against Scotland in the second half last Saturday.

It’s been anything but boring so far.

And it’s not over yet. 

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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