Samoans witness start of Irish rugby revolution
ANOTHER SCENE from a different world, another game of rugby from a different world. The tour finale in Apia on Saturday afternoon (Sunday morning Irish time) against Western Samoa was good, very good in some respects, but the scoreline doesn't lie and at the end, it read 57-25.
The Irish A/Development team has come a long way in five weeks, but Irish rugby still has some way to go.
With each new game come new challenges and so, while improvements are made in some areas, the gulf between the hemispheres is accentuated in others. This was, by some distance, the hardest match of the tour, an even-stronger Western Samoan Test team than that which beat Ireland in Dublin against, roughly speaking, an Irish third team.
To score three fine tries, take the first quarter, come back from behind and lead in the third, on a sweltering, humid day with temperatures in the 30s against one of the best eight sides in the world, constituted a mighty effort - the most constructive and creative of the tour given all of that.
Yet it clearly hurt an exhausted, hangdog Irish team, and definitely rankled Irish coach Brian Ashton, that the failure to turn pressure into scores in the final quarter actually led to three breakaway tries for the ruthless Samoans from practically their own line. All of this much to the undiluted merriment of the ever-giggling, ever chirpy, Pacific islanders in the capacity 12,000 crowd.
"To paraphrase what I've just said in the dressing-room, I hope that game is a bit of a watershed for Irish rugby. I thought there were some heroic efforts out there, considering what we've been through on this tour and in these conditions, from the majority of the side and they were badly let down by one or two individuals."
In particular, Ashton was citing "players who were incapable of executing the basic things close to their line, and I'm talking about simple three-on-twos. I'm talking about driving the ball from a line-out and not being turned over etc. etc."
That might seem a harsh judgement given mistakes in the last quarter were almost inevitable in what was surely the most exacting and punishing game many of these players will ever have experienced. But Ashton is an exacting coach, and one not concerned about upsetting his players in striving for those high standards.
Nevertheless, there is a bit of a softie underneath that rugby league-hardened, Wigan/Bath exterior. "Having said that," he continued, "there was a great fear amongst everyone that on a day like this afternoon and at the end of a week like we've been through, that we'd get an absolutely stuffing. We didn't."
He still rued the costly mistakes which led to the concession of 21 points through breakaway tries, adding: "I've just said to the players responsible that they've no place on an international rugby field and they've got to remember that, because in the future if repeated, it'll happen again. We can't put that amount of work in and turn over easy ball like that.
"But to finish on a positive note, I thought we played some outstanding rugby at times," admitted Ashton, in deference to the many attacking platforms and well-deserved three tries that punctuated a performance which, in truth, must have surpassed his hopes in some respects. "I'm very proud of the majority of players who represented Ireland today."
Pat Whelan "felt sick for the players", recalling once playing in similar conditions in Fiji. "I haven't seen an Irish rugby team play rugby like that in aeons," he said, and he might as easily have said "ever".
"But it's heartbreaking when you play so well and end up with a scoreline like that, and trying to explain it to people back home. They just won't understand it."
To facilitate the process, urgent demands for a video of the game were being made, so it could be shown to as many players and coaches back home as feasible. No doubt people in Ireland are wincing at the scoreline, but to put it in perspective, every
Super 12 team last season conceded 50 points or more in at least one game - even the mighty Auckland Blues. This kind of rugby, this kind of scoreline, is commonplace hereabouts.
As the Samoans showed, tries can be scored from anywhere; there's no such thing as a "defensive" area of the field, per se. "The AIL bears no relevance to what happens in international rugby. None like. It's just working against us totally in speed of thought, skills, all that sort of thing," said Whelan.
From that perspective, it has, perhaps, been one of the most informative, eye-opening and progressive tours ever undertaken by any Irish representative side. Sure, the results could have been better, but hang them. They're only footnotes in history. If the huge strides made on tour are mirrored back home, then history might also show that the revolution started here.