Petty vindictiveness following Ireland around like a bad smell
Critics gleefully wait to give the team a kicking for daring not to deliver on the promise of 2018
Garry Ringrose with Luke McGrath after the centre scored Ireland’s fifth try against on Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images
It was close to 10pm on Thursday night by the time Joe Schmidt sat down in the press conference room in the ground floor of Misaki stadium. In comparison to the atmosphere in the ground, where it had been wet and sultry and truly horrible for playing any kind of sport, let alone an activity as physically gruelling as rugby, the mildly air conditioned room must have been felt like stepping into a fridge.
As Schmidt answered questions and spoke about the swampy conditions of the evening, Johnny Sexton, sitting beside him, happened to fumble the translator headset sitting on the table and it fell to the floor. Schmidt laughed nervously and said “At least you didn’t drop the ball, Johnny.”
The moment was noticeable because it seemed to reveal a rare streak of apprehension in Ireland’s coach. From his arrival in Ireland, the New Zealander projected an aura of absolute control and cool authority and his prolific return of results and silverware with Leinster and Ireland was unprecedented. He had guided Irish rugby towards new heights with a rigorous and tightly controlled game plan and the projections towards this World Cup had cast them as a team with the potential to cause a massive upset: that they had the stuff to perhaps go and win it.
Now, Schmidt had watched his Ireland team play its third pool game in Japan and the collective data has made for neurotic reading. It is hard to know what to make of Ireland and you could sense, in the room, that both coach and captain weren’t fully sure of where exactly they were at either.
Apart from anything else, a veil of doubt hangs over the game health of several key players. As it happened, where Schmidt was speaking on Thursday night, a team of medical staff wheeled someone past the room on a gurney. They were attending to a member of the crowd. But given their recent luck, people turned to check lest another player had slipped and done an ankle on his way to the shower.
Whatever happens, Schmidt is entering his last few weeks as Ireland coach. And he has one game left with which he can somehow concoct the kind of rampaging, organised and relentless performance capable of troubling their quarter-final opponents, the ominously polished New Zealand or gargantuan South Africans.
The emotional distance between the Ireland team and its public has never been greater in the Schmidt era than right now. The early morning World Cup games at home have none of the electrical charge of the Six Nations: winter games played in Dublin or London or Paris on prime-time television and ideal for Saturday socialising. And the fare has not exactly been scintillating.
Ireland looked persuasive against Scotland, ultimately knackered against Japan and underwhelmed the nation with their five try to zero win over Russia. After the Japan game, a narrative began to emerge that great swathes of the Irish public were indifferent to the national rugby team anyway, that they were posh lads separated from the public and the showpiece of a club to which the majority of people have no access: that as a recent Irish Independent piece stated, of the squad players educated in the Republic of Ireland “16 went to private institutions beyond the reach of most. That’s 70 per cent of the panel that many just cannot relate to.”
It’s true that the Irish rugby team has traditionally been a reflection of the private school system. But it’s also the case that both the provinces and the national team have attracted supporters who feel no less complete or fulfilled for having come through the state school system and couldn’t give a toss about where the players went to school. And that rationale dismisses the many, many people who never set foot in a private school but have still loved rugby all their lives.
However the point, in so far as there was one, unintentionally highlighted just how niche rugby remains. There are many counties in which the rugby has made only the faintest imprint. If the IRFU can develop the game beyond the elite schools system, the opportunity to increase its playing pool is promising. Ireland have a small playing pool at elite level. Yet there’s a sense now of betrayal and, it would seem, vindictive glee that they might not beat New Zealand, say, where the game is the national mode of self-expression. There’s a sense that people are waiting to give the team a kicking for daring not to deliver on the promise of last year.
The transformation of following and watching rugby as a kind of fashionable pursuit began long before anyone knew of Schmidt. Go back to those years when RTE had the rights to the Heineken Cup and habitually broadcast wild Saturday heroics on Thomond Park, fronted by Tom McGurk and George Hook as a religious experience. Everything was new, most pertinently the sight of Irish teams winning and having fun. The sense of limitless possibilities may have reached its apotheosis when Brian O’Driscoll scored his hat trick of tries in Paris some 19 years ago now.
Like virtually all professional sports teams, the Ireland rugby team has, in recent years, been commercialised and marketed with a slickness that has the inevitable consequence of making people suspect that they are being sold something inauthentic. There was never any real need: even in the worst days, even when the best you could hope for was an electric burst from Simon Geoghegan to postpone the inevitable, people cared about the national rugby team because they were the national rugby team. But it’s just part of the deal of professional sport: the sponsorship, the endorsements. It’s not the fault of the players. It’s just the business of professional sport, which is ultimately entertainment.
Completing the 2018 Grand Slam and beating the All Blacks that November gave the Ireland rugby team its year of years. Schmidt’s brilliance lay in his ability to shape a team that was rarely fun to watch but hugely effective and courageous and Sexton was the embodiment of a steely new ambition to go further than any previous team.
That ambition would appear to be in a precarious place this weekend. There’s a cold storage, obvious argument to be made that if Ireland crash and burn here in Japan, it will stand as proof of the conceit and hubris running through Irish rugby: that when push comes to shove those Irish rugby players, from the rarefied but parochial suburbs, just can’t cut it on the big stage.
It’s a petty argument easily made and it is, of course, bullshit. What Schmidt and the Ireland team achieved in 2018 shouldn’t be compromised by whatever happens over the next two weeks. Even if Ireland were operating with all guns blazing all year, getting through New Zealand or South Africa would remain a daunting task.
And just: don’t count this Irish crew out yet. It’s been a grim closing year for Schmidt and Ireland. But the weird thing, now that Ireland have lost their cloak of ruthless dependability, they will come into the quarter-finals as a kind of unknowable and wounded entity. And that’s what could make them dangerous again.