The Hangover: How have Ireland fared in the Six Nations following a World Cup?

The last two Six Nations campaigns after a World Cup have been painful for Ireland

England’s frontrow Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Alex Corbisiero celebrate a scrum penalty awarded against Ireland in the 2012 St Patrick’s Day massacre

England’s frontrow Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and Alex Corbisiero celebrate a scrum penalty awarded against Ireland in the 2012 St Patrick’s Day massacre

 

St Patrick’s Day 2012. Mike Ross departs, broken, by half-time. Six minutes later Philip Matthews, a durable blindside and Ireland captain through some of the darker late 1980s, early 1990s knows all about what’s about to happen.

He can smell it.

“I feel sorry for Tom Court as it’s gonna be a long afternoon of misery for him,” Matthews tells the viewers on BBC One.

Court has a crick in his neck after crumbling under a hardly awesome English pack. But they don’t need to actually be world beaters because they believe, on this dreary afternoon, that they are world beaters.

And beat, bruise and batter they did.

Not an hour gone and Nigel Owens is running under the posts. No debate needed. Penalty try. No O’Driscoll, no O’Connell either.

“I was lucky enough to play in some very good frontrows,” chimed in Brian Moore on cue, “and when you get on top of a frontrow you can look, just as you are going down for a scrum, and can see in their eyes they don’t want to be there.”

There follows the seventh scrum penalty of this miserable afternoon as a very young Owen Farrell makes it 22-9.

“It’s a manshaming thing,” Moore said very matter-of-factly. He wasn’t lording it either. He was calling the game as he saw it alongside Matthews.

We all saw it the same that day.

That’s one of many cautionary tales about Twickenham, and Paris and the need to beat Wales at home. If heeded, and if possible with the players who remain, Ireland can avoid the dark fate that befell them during Six Nations campaigns that followed previous World Cups in 2008 and four years ago.

One obvious difference between now and then is Joe Schmidt. But the same problem exists. The hangover, the regret about what might, dammit, what should, have been. The loss of key, and seemingly, irreplaceable players.

Another interesting difference is the strength of Munster in 2008 and Leinster in 2012. Both were at the peak of their vintage/golden era powers. Point being, the focus wasn’t entirely stacked on Ireland being the tip of the IRFU spear.

It supposedly is now.

What remains the same is Ireland have to make daunting journeys to England and France with some great leaders passed into shadow. The need to replace defence coach Les Kiss cannot come until the three Test tour of South Africa in June due to Andy Farrell’s gardening leave from the RFU.

The summer tours of 2008 and 2012 bring further health warnings.

Ireland came close to breaking the All Black hex both times. Dan Carter’s 79th minute drop goal earned the hosts a 22-19 victory in 2012 before the 60-0 game followed a week later in Hamilton. Flog your horse for 12 months and expect nothing less. Not much has outwardly changed in schedule terms then.

Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell both missed 2012, while O’Driscoll was also absent in 2008 for that capitulation at Twickenham. Those defeats to England amounted to a 63-19 aggregate. Warren Gatland orchestrated a couple of victories in Dublin nail biters as well.

So, judging on recent experiences alone, Ireland will lose to Wales and England in the coming weeks.

“I wouldn’t buy into that,” argues Brian O’Driscoll. “It wasn’t something that’s glaringly obvious to me. In 2008 I was in bad form myself, and injury ridden. When you look back on it we were still struggling after the major disappointment of that World Cup. ”

Ah yes, who can forget Bordeaux to Paris before they limped to the Twickenham beheading of Eddie O’Sullivan’s golden generation.

In Tom English’s excellent history of Irish rugby - No Borders, playing rugby for Ireland – told directly by those who lived it, O’Sullivan spoke clearly about a 2008 Six Nations which ended in that 33-10 obliteration in London. The Paris adventure ended in a 26-21 defeat before Warren Gatland’s sweet revenge attack for the 2001 coup.

“The union gave me the Six Nations to get my house in order and I didn’t get it done,” O’Sullivan remembered. “The vitriol was still there from the World Cup. The players were behind me but there was a lot of sulphur in the air. We played badly against Italy but we got a win. Then we went to France and had a poor start but nearly came back and beat them. Against Scotland, we beat the snot out of them at Croke Park. Then the big crunch game against Wales - Wazza rolls into town and we started the game well and we were all over them. They were hanging on by their fingernails. Shaggy got held up over the line and had we got that try then they were in big trouble. As it was, we lost 16-12.”

Shane Horgan: “We should have won the Wales game but now we had to go to Twickenham for a do-or-die match – and we died.”

Donncha O’Callaghan: “We caved in that day. It was the first time I had experienced that in a green jersey . . . at Twickenham we didn’t believe in anything.”

Second Captains Six Nations preview

What really rankled was the pack that “caved in” were all on the field when the grand slam was captured 12 months later: Horan, Best, Hayes, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Leamy, Wallace and Heaslip were not playing for their coach on that day.

Eddie O’Sullivan: “I had to admit to myself I hadn’t been able to turn it around . . . The perception of me in Ireland is bad. There’s a legacy there from when Warren went. The perception is that I’m a narcissistic control freak who bullies people - all that stuff has been written about me. But I’ve a good relationship with the players I coached. I think there’s respect there. The only one who said bad things about me is Geordan Murphy, who wrote some appalling stuff about me in his book. I was disappointed in that.”

Appalling in O’Sullivan’s eyes is an honest perspective from the vantage point taken by the current Leicester backs coach. Of that 2008 Six Nations campaign and O’Sullivan’s subsequent demise, Murphy wrote: “Ranked third in the world just over a year before, we finished fourth in the Six Nations. The clamour for Eddie to resign came from even his most loyal supporters. Driving home from training that Wednesday, I switched on the radio to hear Eddie had fallen on his sword. Wonder how much that cost the IRFU.”

O’Sullivan had been locked in with a four-year deal pre-World Cup and supposedly the subsequent pay off displeased the money men on Lansdowne road. Despite three Triple Crowns on O’Sullivan’s watch, he hasn’t been hired for a professional rugby job on this island since.

“I’m no trouble-maker, but I never felt comfortable under his leadership,” added Murphy. “At times, he seemed to be strategising for his own self preservation rather than focusing on the team’s best interests. His contribution to Irish rugby must be recognised as valuable but, in so many ways, he stunted the growth of a unique generation of players.” 

****

“It will be really interesting to see how we go without Paulie,” says O’Driscoll.

Is the leadership void that big a deal?

“What Paulie had is a common sense and an understanding. The proper leadership stuff is during the week. Saying the right thing at the right time or pulling together an extra meeting when you feel something is a bit loose. Small things like understanding the situation and acting as a result of it or not saying anything because that’s the right thing to do.”

So Ireland are covered in terms of leadership?

“To the same degree as before? Not quite, but they have the leaders. Rory is more than capable ”

Rory Best, for a number of reasons, was considered the logical captain as Jamie Heaslip and Seán O’Brien were passed over for equally logical, if different, reasons. CJ Stander, for better or worse, has been leading Munster with some stunning performances this season.

“This year’s Six Nations shouldn’t be about how the World Cup didn’t go as planned,” O’Driscoll adds, inferring that the hangover is not as devastatingly painful.

Not like 2008, anyway.

******

The 2012 Six Nations campaign fades into the annals of time. The gut-twisting inability to beat Wales in the World Cup quarter-final down in Wellington lingered.

“2012, I missed that whole Six Nations as I had my neck surgery,” was all O’Driscoll had for us.

But Tom Court would remember March 17th better than most (some don’t remember the day at all). The ill-timed advertisement for an Ireland scrum coach, which trickled out of Lansdowne Road following defeat to England, turned depression into ridicule. However, work was being done beneath the surface, at home and recruiting from abroad, with the current wave of Irish props (mostly looseheads, mind) yet to mature and World Rugby still only allowing one prop on the bench.

That was the nub of it.

“You’re always going to be better having a tighthead covering loose, than a loosehead covering tight,” said Court years later. “It’s one of those things where you really have to be playing in either position regularly to cover it properly.”

O’Driscoll and O’Connell were injured. England were the heavier pack by 3kg a man. In Corbisiero they had a 120kg loosehead (Court was 105kg) and in Cole they had the best number three in the northern hemisphere. Hartley was always a tough Kiwi nut.

Owens whistled the first scrum penalty, for collapsing, after just 63 seconds. Another on 19 minutes came when Ross broke away. Another on 22 minutes. Ben Morgan galloped over the gain line off the next two Eoin Reddan put-ins.

And still it was 9-6 when Ross went off. But it felt like something worse.

Two minutes into the second half Corbisiero twists and skies Court. The scrum is reset and Court is turned in and up again. Two minutes later the Australian born Rugby League convert is smeared into the dirt. Two minutes later the scrum crumbles on top of him once more. England penalty. The anvil comes down on 57 minutes when Owens is left with no option but to run under the posts after a succession of five metre scrums.

19-9 and game over with miles to run.

“It’s a manshaming thing . . . ”

Two more penalties follow before Ben Youngs takes a quick tap and dives over for his try.

No Irish supporter wants to relive that day. But to ignore history is to guarantee the same fate will be revisited.

Then came that three Test, 3-0 blackwash in New Zealand. A year later Ireland lost to Italy in Rome and Kidney was gone.

“I owe a lot to Declan, but his best strength is also maybe his weakness” Sexton told English in No Borders.

“He’s such a good person and at times he wouldn’t tell you the truth. I said it to him. I said, ‘I need to know why I’m dropped so I can improve it. I don’t want to hear that I’ve done nothing wrong or I’m going to be great. That’s not the case if I’m not playing.’ At times, I wish he was harsher with me and told me how it was, but he was a good person and that’s what made him successful.”

Andrew Trimble had a common enough player view, “Declan tried very hard to have relationships with guys but it never really worked because you never really knew where you stood with him. He spoke in riddles sometimes.”

In the film Moneyball Brad Pitt’s version of the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane tells his stats genius, played by Jonah Hill, “I can’t develop personal relationships with these guys I have to be able to trade them, send them down, sometimes cut them . . . They are professional ball players, just be straight with them. No fluff. Just facts. Would you rather get a bullet to the head or five to the chest and bleed to death?”

“They are my only two options?” replied Hill.

Ireland’s record post World Cups

2008 Six Nations

Ireland 16-11 Italy (Croke Park)

France 26-21 Ireland (Stade de France)

Ireland 34-13 Scotland (Croke Park)

Ireland 12-16 Wales (Croke Park)

England 33-10 Ireland (Twickenham)

2012 Six Nations

Ireland 21-23 Wales (Aviva stadium)

Ireland 42-10 Italy (Aviva stadium)

France 17-17 Ireland (Stade de France)

Ireland 32-14 Scotland (Aviva stadium)

England 30-9 Ireland (Twickenham)

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