Stalemate in Auckland

It all felt a bit flat, didn’t it? The Lions and the All Blacks tied up an enthralling series yesterday in a tense and gripping final showdown. 15 points apiece meant the protagonists couldn’t be separated in both yesterday’s game and the overall series. The acute sense of anti-climax and dissatisfaction was seen in the body language of the players at the end. Nobody was sure how to react.

A draw is indeed the most unsatisfactory outcome in rugby. Even if your side loses, the contest has been a success and the other team can celebrate their win. However, when the contest has been rendered obsolete by frustrating stalemate, neither side can take anything from it. Quite simply, there’s nothing to celebrate. If the Lions had lost yesterday, we’d still have witnessed scenes of delirium, as victorious All Blacks celebrated a hard earned victory. Similarly, if the Lions had prevailed, the players and fans would be celebrating a truly historic win. What we saw instead was something much more hollow and empty.

Despite the palpable sense of disappointment, the 2017 Lions can look back on this series with immense pride. In the midst of regret over a series win that got away, it’s easy to forget just how universally written off  the Lions were before they started their odyssey six weeks’ ago. Prior to kick off, most pundits and commentators were predicting a 3-0 whitewash for the All Blacks. Even the most optimistic of Lions’ fans-myself included-argued that the best Gatland’s tourists could hope for was a 2-1 series defeat. A drawn series is actually a phenomenal achievement, therefore.

Head coach Warren Gatland has been completely vindicated in his selections and decisions. The unfortunate “Geography Six” episode aside, the Lions’ coach has been brilliant throughout this unforgiving tour. It takes a certain type of character and personality to succeed in something as complex and onerous as a Lions tour. There are few enterprises in life where virtually everything is set up for you to fail. A  Lions tour to New Zealand is one such arduous and relentless task. The first thing the tourists had to win, therefore, was the respect of their merciless hosts. They did that and then some. The Lions’ coach was depicted in the New Zealand press as a clown, but the Waikato man has proved yet again what a formidable and smart operator he is.

And how his players have blossomed. The likes of Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly have delivered in exhilarating fashion on this tour. What’s more, in Maro Itoje, we’ve seen the emergence of a genuine superstar. Others will feel aggrieved and hurt at their lack of involvement, but that’s the nature of it. You see it on every tour. However, the perception, from the outside at any rate, is that this has been a happy, well managed tour. Gatland’s squad has got the balance right between paying respect to the locals, enjoying their surroundings and getting serious about the rugby when it really mattered. There were very few rumbles of discontent-a sure sign of a happy touring party.

But Gatland’s achievement is about much more than a drawn Test series. The under-fire Lions’ brand has been strengthened and renewed to an almost immeasurable extent. For this much cherished concept to remain relevant in the professional era, the team has to win Tests. The entire viability of the concept is questioned otherwise. Given the fact that everything is set up for the Lions to fail, consider this. Of their last seven tests, the tourists have won four, drawn one and lost two. That’s a remarkable record!

It must be remembered that this was an organisation in dire need of revival following Clive Woodward’s misadventure of 2005. The recovery in the ensuing 12 years has been nothing short of amazing. And the primary architect of the turnaround has been Warren Gatland, head coach for the last two tours and Ian McGeechan’s chief assistant in 2009. He should be extremely proud of his efforts. More than anything, the 2017 tour proves that the Lions are in great shape.

In recent times, the Lions have been subjected to selfish attacks from ignorant charlatans who care nothing for history, tradition and respect. Sadly, there are many vested interests who’d be more than happy to see the Lions retreat forever into the history books. While that can’t be allowed to happen, the attackers are picking a fight they can’t win. Anyone who’s watched over the last six weeks has seen a brand that is vibrant, modern and ultra successful. An organisation that cherishes its wonderful history but is wholly relevant in the elite world of modern professional sport. From strength to strength. Roll on South Africa. The British and Irish Lions are alive and well!

By Dyfsunctional at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Advertisements

A Perspective on Brexit: 12 months on

Following the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union just over a year ago, I wrote “Brexit: A Sleep Walk into Disaster.” You can read it here . A year on from the most unexpected and significant vote in my lifetime, it’s appropriate to return to this polarising subject. Now that Article 50 has been invoked by Westminster and Brexit negotiations have commenced in earnest, there’s no turning back. The divorce papers have been served, the lawyers have been instructed and all that remains (pardon the pun) is to hammer out the details of a potentially bitter and acrimonious deal. If that sounds unduly bleak, it’s nevertheless an accurate representation of the volatile times we’re living in. We’re deep into uncharted territory. Britain’s exit was always likely to be messy.

The highly charged and febrile atmosphere has only been heightened, of course, by yet another political miscalculation by a Conservative leader. A year has passed and we’ve been subjected to another unnecessary and unhelpful vote inspired by a misplaced sense of Tory arrogance. Incredibly, Theresa May, having initially indicated that her government would last its full term, made the catastrophic decision to ape her predecessor in calling a vote that a clear majority neither wanted or needed. As far as political miscalculations go, May’s volte face wasn’t far behind Cameron’s in terms of futility and ineptitude. The thought process was clear. Britain’s premier evidently believed that Jeremy Corbyn was too weak to mount any sort of credible challenge and that an enhanced parliamentary majority was virtually assured.

It sounded plausible enough but it didn’t quite work out like that. Corbyn proved much more durable and popular than May imagined and the Tory leader ended up losing her Westminster majority rather than augmenting it. Just like 2010, the UK was left with that most undesirable of electoral outcomes-a hung parliament. However, the context had changed so much in the intervening years that a desperate May was forced to turn to some unlikely and unorthodox allies to shore up her ailing administration. There were many Tories who’d been aghast with the Clegg coalition in 2010, but last month’s general election heralded an even more unlikely alliance. This time, the Conservatives didn’t turn to the Liberals for support but  Northern Ireland’s deeply contentious Democratic Unionist Party. Yikes!

Hardly the strong and stable environment we were promised for the critical Brexit negotiations. It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it? And the early indications emanating from Brussels are that the discussions are going to be far from cosy and straightforward. The contrasting mood music from the competing participants is instructive, to say the least. While Britain’s negotiators have been at pains to seem all sweetness and light over the last year, Brussels’ approach seems altogether less accommodating. The British have seemed keen to present themselves as bastions of accommodation and compromise, while their EU counterparts have adopted an altogether stricter tone. All or nothing seems to be the essence of the EU’S position; as negotiators have been queuing up to tell the British that they can’t merely cherry pick the parts of EU membership that are most advantageous to them and ignore everything else. It’s not quite hard ball, but European politicians and negotiators are understandably loath to hand Britain’s leavers their wish list on a plate. Why rush to settle when you hold all the aces? Did anyone honestly think it was going to be any other way?

One might feel more sorry for May and her government if the wounds weren’t so obviously self-inflicted and avoidable. Britain’s prime minister now faces the toughest task of all: steering the UK through a time of unprecedented instability when the whole world must appear resolutely set against her. Attempting all this with no parliamentary majority and having been thrust into an arranged marriage with the unappealing DUP must be an extremely lonely place to be. How unnecessary this predicament was. If Cameron had only backed the courage of his convictions and stood up to his internal dissenters by trying to reform the EU from within, this whole unsavoury mess could have been avoided. Alas, that ship has long since sailed and we’ve all been subjected to crippling uncertainty and political chaos as a consequence.

A year ago I wrote about the law of unintended consequences and the period post the Brexit referendum has illuminated my point. While it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see that Brexit had the potential to unsettle the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, few could have predicted the remarkable way in which the Brexit vote has rekindled the debate on Irish reunification. Prior to June 23rd last year, the whole concept of Irish political unity (as it’s historically been understood) was completely off the agenda in any real and current sense. Even Sinn Féin seemed more than comfortable in their place atop Stormont’s power-sharing pyramid.

The Brexit referendum has changed that dynamic inexorably. For the first time in a generation, the Irish unity debate is firmly back on the agenda in a meaningful way. And a majority of unionists supported Brexit? Indeed, were the referendum to be reprised tomorrow, most of them would still vote exactly the same way. Maybe it makes sense to them! How Ireland will fare in negotiations is uncertain but there is no doubt that the Brexit discussions will shape Ireland’s political future in a profound way. Whether it’s hard or soft, centred on land or at sea, the Irish border is set for its biggest shake up since its creation in 1922. How the hastily arranged DUP-Tory love-in will affect these seminal issues is anyone’s guess.

The recent plethora of elections has left many cold and apathetic about Brexit and the immediate future. Increasing numbers are turning off politics. It’s easy, of course, to see European political machinations as remote and impersonal. But something extraordinarily significant and fundamental is happening over the next couple of years. And we all have a stake in it. It’s no exaggeration to state that the world as we know it is being turned on its head. Old certainties and ideologies are threatened as a new political order and arrangement presents itself. Maybe it will all work out okay in the end but nothing should be taken for granted. Everything is on the table and  it’s possible that the UK and Europe will  change dramatically over the next decade on the back of the landmark Brexit negotiations. The stakes have never been higher. I guess that’s what happens when you make yourself an unnecessary hostage to fortune. Strap yourselves in. We could be in for a very bumpy ride.

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

When fight becomes farce!

By now you’ve all heard the news. On 26 August 2017, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor will square off in Las Vegas. It’s the fight we’ve all been waiting for apparently; the most eagerly awaited bout of the modern era. Or is it? The promoters and publicists are queuing up to tell us how significant and historic this event is, so it must be true, mustn’t it? Actually no. This is more farce than fight. But how has such a worthless event (money aside obviously) come to pass?  Have the sporting public suddenly succumbed en masse to gullibility and unquestioned hype? Or are we all merely being taken for a ride by two extremely smart, if controversial, sportsmen?

You see, the problem with this contest is that it has no substance. It’s the ultimate triumph of hype over real, substantive sporting endeavour and achievement. That’s why it must be resisted by genuine sports fans. Unfortunately, it won’t be. Both the antagonists are big enough personalities to ensure that bums are firmly welded to ludicrously expensive seats and sell enough pay-per-view subscriptions to justify the purse.

That’s not the point, though. Where is the merit, the logic, the justification for this contest? Hype and promotion aside, here are the facts. Floyd Mayweather is an accomplished, multiple-time world champion; unbeaten through an illustrious and unblemished professional career. The very embodiment of boxing class. Conor McGregor is a superb MMA fighter and the biggest name in his own sport, but the Dubliner has never laced a professional boxing glove in his life.

And we’re supposed to accept the claim that this is a mouth-watering and enticing contest? Give me a break! It all has a touch of the WWE about it. Only that’s doing the WWE a massive disservice, to be honest. If Vince McMahon was in charge of this hype-fest, he would at least ensure that the contest lasts more than a couple of rounds. Mayweather may be 40, but you don’t lose class. And where’s the real, reputational risk when your opponent is a complete and untested rookie? You don’t have to be Mystic Meg to work out how this one’s going to go. Maybe I’m missing the point, though. Maybe we should accept that this match-up is all about the money and rejoice in the unprecedented bounty both stars will glean?

There has been much talk about the obvious danger arising from a rookie stepping into the ring with one of the greatest boxers of all time. And yes, it was indeed one of my main concerns when I first heard that McGregor-Mayweather was a genuine prospect. However, danger is palpable and omnipresent any time a boxer climbs through those ropes. It’s the same with any contact sport. Both men are experienced and self-aware enough to know the risks. Moreover, any man is entitled to earn a crust in whatever manner he sees fit as long as no laws are broken. The astronomical numbers involved shouldn’t distract us from the fact that this fight is merely a professional engagement that suits the vested interests of both parties and their respective money men. Good luck to them, right?

While all the above is certainly true, we don’t, as consumers, have to buy it. Unlike the multi-millionaires involved, are any of us ordinary punters wealthy enough to justify spending our hard earned dough on a glorified circus? Surely, the integrity and legitimacy of professional sport is still something worth salvaging, even in this money-obsessed era? We can refuse. We can resist the hype and nonsense. Its consumption isn’t mandatory.

I’ve a lot of respect for the individuals involved. Which only makes me feel worse. As a boxing fan, I’m a long standing admirer of Mayweather and have nothing but deep admiration for his achievements in the sport. McGregor, meanwhile, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but his ascent to the top of MMA is an inspiration for the millions of young people who idolise him, both at home and abroad. And there’s no doubt that he’s put his home country on the international sporting map in a way few others have come close to emulating. The Irish always cherish their own.

For all that, I can’t get into this fight. It leaves me utterly cold and more than a little apprehensive. It’s rumoured that August’s super-fight could earn the boxers as much as $100 million. That’s a colossal figure and certainly makes the appeal of this bout easier to understand from a fighter’s perspective. But when did it become all about the coin? Surely professional achievement and reputation mean so much more? In the final analysis, what will either man gain from this flawed enterprise apart from vastly inflated bank balances? They’re already wealthy men, after all, and neither need the money. Maybe it’s a sign of our times. The almighty dollar transcends everything; meaning the most insubstantial contest can be sold to a ravenous public. It doesn’t make it right, though.

There’s even something a little vulgar about the way potential profits outweigh all other considerations in these matters. Mayweather calls his inner circle The Money Team and the former champion has proved to be a formidable businessman outside the ring. McGregor is no slouch himself in the world of  self-promotion and sporting enrichment. There’s no doubt that this contest will fulfil a lifelong ambition by making him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. Fair play, I suppose. We can only hope and pray that neither man comprises his health or dignity in the process. Please God no-one gets hurt.

This isn’t really sport. It barely qualifies as entertainment. The wrestling angle is quite apt, because in preparing for this bout, Ireland’s most famous export might ask to borrow Vinnie Mac’s entrance music for the occasion. “No chance, ‘cos that’s what I’ve got.” Fingers crossed both men come through unscathed and we can all chalk this unfortunate episode down to experience. I’m sure plenty of eager fans will rise early on 26 August, keen to see sporting history made and having paid a pretty penny to do so. Unfortunately, I won’t be one of them. I’ve a prior engagement to watch paint dry.

 

File:Sports Model John Quinlan Autographed Muay Thai Boxing Gloves.jpg

By Julieb2768 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

Comebacks should never be discounted!

What does Jeremy Corbyn have in common with the Lions rugby team? Nothing on first glance, you might say. Certainly, there isn’t an obvious connection between Labour’s unconventional leader and the cream of British Isles rugby. In fact, you probably think it bizarre that I mention Corbyn in the same breath as a sports discussion. After all, one imagines that the socialist poster boy wasn’t exactly a campus jock in his university days. No, there isn’t an apparent correlation between the two subjects. Unless, that is, we think in terms of disappointment and comeback.

By now, we all know the result of the British General Election. The unfashionable and much derided Corbyn was written off in all quarters for months, only to make a creditable, astonishing comeback and force a hung parliament; snatching authority, if not quite power, from an incredulous Theresa May. Indeed, the Tory prime minister only called the snap election in order to obtain an enhanced mandate to help navigate an easier path in the treacherous negotiations re: the United Kingdom’s imminent withdrawal from the European Union. Many believe that the decision to call the election  was based on an unjustified and arrogant assumption that the outcome was a fait accompli; that an augmented Tory majority was essentially inevitable.

In this respect, a parallel can be drawn with the plight of the Lions navigating their own way through rugby’s toughest tour on the other side of the world. As detailed previously on these pages, a Lions tour to New Zealand is the closest thing to mission impossible in the oval ball game. The reasons are obvious. Not only do Gatland’s men have to find a way to overcome one of the greatest teams ever, they must also negotiate one of the most febrile rugby environments visiting teams can encounter. The tourists must contend not only with the brilliant All Blacks, but also the most fanatical supporters imaginable and a proudly panegyric press.

It’s no mean task. And there are signs that the Lions will struggle. The Lions’ last crusade to the land of the long white cloud famously ended in a 3-0 whitewash and the current world champions are red hot favourites to inflict similar agony this time. The Lions laboured to an unconvincing win over the Provincial Barbarians in the opening game of the tour and followed that up last week with a loss against a Blues side that had been roundly written off beforehand. Yesterday’s win over the unbeaten Crusaders was a vastly improved performance, full of forward power and defensive grit, but it’s foolish to think this effort would be enough to vanquish the peerless All Blacks.

Yet there is hope that the Lions are slowly gaining the match fitness and competitiveness needed to muster a serious challenge. The tourists’ set-piece looks solid and dependable, while Andy Farrell’s defensive system has the potential to shut down even the best attacking units, on the evidence of yesterday’s effort. Although the patterns employed thus far are nothing we haven’t seen before from a Gatland coached team, we are starting to see some of the shape and cohesion that was missing in the first two fixtures. Teething problems are inevitable, after all, with a scratch team. One doubts that the Lions can upset Steve Hansen’s hosts with predictable attacking systems, but there’s no reason the Lions coaches won’t have a few tricks up their sleeves for the Test series. After all, no team wants to reveal its hand too early.

For all that, the first few games of the tour have reiterated what a stupendously tall order this mission is. The Blues were branded as the weakest and most ineffectual of the Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and yet they were miles ahead of the tourists in terms of attacking flair and creativity. As earnestly as the Lions toiled in Auckland, it was the hosts who played all the rugby and looked much more likely to score tries. And that’s the problem. There is a depth and ingenuity in New Zealand rugby that the Lions struggle to emulate. We know the tourists won’t lack for effort, but making up the deficit in skill won’t be as easy.

You see, the Kiwis can do everything the Lions can do. Their forwards are just as good, if not better, than the visitors. They wouldn’t be double world champions otherwise. But Hansen’s men are in a different league when it comes to attacking potency and individual skill. That’s the point of difference. Ask yourself: can you imagine any northern hemisphere team attempting, let alone successfully executing, the sublime double offload that won the game for the Blues last Wednesday? It wouldn’t happen. You can only stifle and contain brilliance for so long. Sooner or later, it will destroy you if left unchecked. And no defensive system, no matter how thoroughly instilled and courageously implemented, can hope to keep New Zealand’s backs subdued for 80 minutes. For the Lions, therefore, attack might be the best form of defence if mission impossible is to at least be attempted. It’s time to think outside the box. Can it be done? We know it’s a huge ask but the Lions can take heart from recent events. After all, an organisation can be mocked and universally written off, only for it to make a spirited comeback and come within a whisker of unexpected success. Doubtful? Just ask Jeremy Corbyn.

File:2012-03-19 Warren Gatland at Wales' Grand Slam celebrations.jpg

By Andrew Hazard for National Assembly for Wales / Cynulliad Cymru [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Green march on road to Glory

The waiting is almost over. On Wednesday, Warren Gatland will put players, pundits and arm chair fans out of their collective misery by announcing his squad for the upcoming Lions Tour to the land of the long white cloud. A Lions expedition is always greeted with feverish expectation by rugby fans and the sense of anticipation is more acute when the touring destination is New Zealand. You see, a Lions Tour to New Zealand is the closest thing to mission impossible in international rugby. The scratch representative side has only managed one successful series win in New Zealand: 1971. Other tours to the country have been met with heartbreaking, inevitable, inglorious failure.

Expectations are marginally higher this time on the back of the magnificent series win mustered in Australia last time and the abundance of talent that Gatland and his coaching team currently have at their disposal. Still, no-one is under any illusions about the magnitude of the unenviable task at hand. This is indeed the toughest assignment in rugby. In order to prevail, the Lions need to upset not only one of the greatest rugby squads ever selected but also rugby history in the process. From an Irish viewpoint, there are several certainties for the plane, while others face an anxious, nail-biting wait. In terms of the safer prospects, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Robbie Henshaw and skipper Rory Best seem virtually guaranteed to make the trip; deserved recognition for their consistent and imperious form in recent seasons.

Where it gets interesting is consideration of the possibles and bolters. One imagines that Simon Zebo, for all his faults and mercurial nature, is likely to travel on account of his versatility, while Iain Henderson’s recent return to form and fitness should see him land one of the keenly contested second row berths. Similarly, Sean O’Brien’s physicality and dynamism could see him grab one of the back row slots, but as with the engine room, the competition there is frighteningly fierce and few will be surprised if Gatland includes a liberal sprinkling of Welshmen to contest what is going to be a mouth watering battle at the breakdown.

O’Brien’s fortune could come at the expense of CJ Stander, as it’s unlikely Gatland will accommodate them both given the bountiful back row resources at his disposal. I notice that many of the preview squads in today’s papers include Peter O’Mahony as a nailed on Test starter. O’Mahony is undoubtedly a tremendous rugby player, but my hunch is that he’ll be lucky to make Gatland’s squad let alone the Test team. The Cork man is certainly a thoroughbred, but may suffer due to the aforementioned competition for back row places and a season frustratingly curtailed by injury. Unjust as it seems, the Munster warrior might have to settle for a place on the standby list.

As regards the captaincy, Sam Warburton appears to be earmarked for the role and seems certain to be named squad skipper provided his recent injury can be shaken off on time. Although it would do my heart good, I can’t see Ireland’s Best landing the cherished accolade. A Lions captain must be not only a supreme leader of men but a guaranteed Test starter. As impressive as the Ulster man has been in recent seasons, he’s far from a certain starter even if he is fortuitous enough to make Gatland’s squad. That said, everyone in Irish rugby will wish Best well in his bid to oust the indisciplined and controversial Dylan Hartley. Cardiff stalwart Warburton is indeed a fine player and trusted captain. If the captaincy predictions are correct, he deserves the opportunity to reprise his leadership role from 2013 when injury deprived him of the chance to lead the pride in the decisive third Test.

As fun as the guessing games are, they will soon be academic as Gatland finally reveals his hand. In terms of composition, England are sure to have a sizeable contingent and history tells us that a Gatland coached Lions squad will contain a formidable Welsh presence.  After all, the Lions’ Kiwi coach will want as many players as possible already schooled in the ways of “Warren Ball.” The smallest contingent will probably come from Scotland, but players of the calibre of Stuart Hogg and Johnny Gray have plenty to contribute if called upon.

However, despite a mixed bag of a Six Nations, there is every indication that there’ll be a strong green tint on the perilous road to potential Lions glory. While that’s wonderful to see, one of the best features of the Lions tours is the manner in which they transcend national and regional rivalries. A unifying force that brings together sports men from Britain and Ireland in common cause. United. Where else would you see it? The task is as tough as ever but no less tantalising for that. To paraphrase the great Jim Telfer, this is their Everest. New Zealand are in a virtually unassailable position atop the rugby world but the 2017 Lions are about to roar.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: By Kiwi Flickr (Kiwi Flickr’s photo on Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/license

 

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

 

 

Inconsistent Ireland end on a high

The psychology of sport is fascinating. What makes the difference? How did Ireland transform their fortunes from acute disappointment and under-performance last week to yesterday’s acclaimed victory over a much fancied England side? In sport, coaches and players routinely talk about small margins but how can the transformation be so profound? After all, it’s the same group of players. How can we go from being utterly exasperated with our teams to thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread? And back again! To be a sports fan is to thrust yourself onto a psychological roller-coaster that’s guaranteed to bring extreme thrills; massive highs and lows at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

In elite, professional sport success, it seems, is only partially related to talent. After all, every player on display is supremely skillful and in possession of rare athletic prowess. At the top end, there’s precious little between opposing teams in terms of talent and skill. That’s why professional sportsmen and women are always looking for an edge, a psychological spur that can give them that decisive advantage over their rivals and opponents. More often than not, the difference is mindset. The top two inches. Analysing performances can be infuriating for coaches and supporters alike. Why did Ireland seemingly blow it against Scotland on the opening day but deliver in emphatic fashion yesterday? The team that struggled in Murrayfield was largely comprised of the same players that conquered the mighty All Blacks in November. What gives? If we accept the theory that the difference in performance relates largely to mindset, why do players deliver on some occasions and freeze on others?

The main problem afflicting this talented Ireland squad is an infuriating lack of consistency. Despite the quantum leap in Irish results in the professional era, there remains a tendency to struggle with the weight and burden of expectation. They’re fine when they’re written off and no-one’s expecting anything. It sits well with the Irish psyche. Ireland still struggle, however, with the tag of favouritism and the expectation to deliver. Think about it. What did the win over England have in common with the heroics in Chicago? Both occasions saw the Irish written off prior to the matches, thus liberating Joe Schmidt’s men from the restrictive burden of expectation. Ireland’s best performances still happen in the context of supporter apathy. Ireland struggle when expectations are heightened, a la the alarming under-performance in Edinburgh.

There’s something about the sight of English jerseys that brings out the best in Irish rugby players. In fact, yesterday’s win was the third time in recent memory that Ireland have denied the red rose a Grand Slam in Dublin; standing alongside the glorious wins of 2001 and 2011. I guess the thought of Eddie Jones’s team sealing a Grand Slam and simultaneous world record on Irish soil was too much for Ireland’s players to bear, inspiring them to their best performance of the championship. The home side lorded in the physicality stakes, meeting fire with fire in thwarting one of the best packs in the world. The Irish dominated their opponents with a controlled aggression that forced England onto the back foot for the majority of an enthralling contest. That’s where mindset comes in. That obdurate desire to physically better your opponent and refusal to concede. The “Mongrel Dog”, as they call it in New Zealand.

It happened more by accident than design, but Ireland’s hastily rearranged back row suited this game perfectly. When Jamie Heaslip cried off in the warm-up, his misfortune allowed CJ Stander to make the seamless transition to number eight. More importantly, Heaslip’s injury catapulted Peter O’Mahony into the side and what a commanding performance the Munster flanker delivered. O’Mahony was absolutely fantastic yesterday, covering every blade of grass in a breathtaking and superb man-of-the-match performance. There’s been some debate recently about whether the Cork man should start for Ireland. Surely the argument has been definitely settled. O’Mahony has to start. If there was a singular difference between the sides, it was the Munster blindside.

Johnny Sexton was his usual sublime self, exhibiting that unique mix of bravery and class. Robbie Henshaw was also outstanding, proving once again that he’s become a genuine leader. It’ll be a travesty if the Athlone man is omitted from Warren Gatland’s Lions’ squad. A special mention must also go to Kieran Marmion. Many feared the worst when Conor Murray pulled out during the week but the talented Marmion proved resoundingly that he belongs in this exalted company. Most satisfying of all, though, was the crucial contribution of Ireland’s inexperienced players. Dan Leavy, Andrew Conway and Luke McGrath stepped into the Six Nations cauldron and every one of them looked to the manor born. And what about McGrath’s wonderful kick to the corner near the end? Sheer class.

Ireland will look back on their 2017 Six Nations campaign with extreme regret. Yesterday’s win should have delivered the title as well as mere bragging rights. Simple as that. In fact, Schmidt’s men could have fallen short against Wales and still been in championship contention if they hadn’t flopped so badly against an improving but inferior Scottish side. Whatever about Eddie Jones’s team, no-one can deny that they’ve been fantastically consistent in the last eighteen months. A consistency that’s steadfastly eluded the men in green. Yesterday’s win was satisfying and cathartic on several levels but Ireland will only reach their true potential when they get back to delivering when it really matters. Champion teams don’t crumble under the weight of expectation. Rather they embrace it. Great squads produce the goods when they’re expected to and deliver optimum performance on a regular basis. Ireland have finished the Six Nations superbly but we know they’re capable of so much more. Once Ireland regain consistency in their game, they’ll be an extremely formidable force.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

File:The fabulous Aviva Stadium.jpg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Reggie Suplido from USA (The fabulous Aviva Stadium) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Irish Slayed by the Dragon!

If I wasn’t Irish, I’d definitely want to be Welsh. I’ve only been a handful of times, but Wales is quite a cool place. Beautiful hills and valleys, scenic rural landmarks and a language that’s wonderfully lyrical and poetic. For all that, the main reason I’d want to be Welsh is rugby. There are only two nations on earth where rugby is the national sport: Wales and New Zealand. In a rugby context, the Kiwis are prone to arrogance and lack the natural modesty and humility of their Welsh counterparts. Therefore, for all true rugby people, Wales is a uniquely special place. If you think of the true legends of the game, it’s likely that your list will contain a liberal sprinkling of Welshmen. Gareth Edwards, J.P.R. Williams, Phil Bennett, Barry John. Welsh legends them all. It’s no coincidence that such names formed the bedrock of the only Lions squads to have achieved back-to-back Test series wins in ’71 and ’74.

There’s also a unique egalitarianism about Welsh rugby. In a sport that was historically ridden with social elitism, Wales was the one bastion where the game was available to players from all social backgrounds; a place where miners and factory workers played alongside the accountants and solicitors. And who can deny the wonderfulness of their Cardiff home? I don’t care what you call the stadium nowadays or whether the roof is open or closed. There isn’t a more beautiful sound in rugby than 70,000 Welsh men and women belting out Hen wlad fy nhadau at the top of their voices.

You almost don’t mind losing to the Welsh. Rugby’s soul belongs in Wales and the game needs them to be strong. Wales’s players suffered merciless criticism in the last few weeks. It goes with the territory when rugby is a national obsession. There was always likely to be a reaction, therefore, and the only question was whether the Welsh response would be enough to overcome a confident Ireland. I must admit that I was feeling good about this one myself. Prior to the game, I ventured that Ireland would only lose in the event of either a massive Irish under-performance or if Wales put in an effort infinitely superior to anything seen this season. In the end, it was the latter. I thought Wales were superb last night: resolute in defence, tactically smart; clinical and creative in attack. When the home side sliced Ireland in two to put George North over for his first try, you sensed Ireland would struggle to respond.

And struggle they did. Although defensively brilliant in the first half-an-hour, the Irish diminished once they went behind. As we’ve seen before, this Irish team isn’t built to play catch-up. The Irish game-plan is predicated on winning collisions, maintaining a solid shape and carefully building scores. The system seems to break down irretrievably when the Irish are coerced into chasing the game. We saw how the Welsh ruthlessly took advantage of Sexton’s sojourn in the sin bin. Once the hosts crept ahead for the second time, moreover, the Irish struggled to regain momentum despite dominating territory and possession for long periods. It’s a recurring theme for this Irish team: a chronic inability to turn possession into points.

I heard Eddie O’Sullivan comment recently about how Ireland have to work very hard for their scores. It’s a valid point. How often do you see Joe Schmidt’s side score off first phase? Actually, it often seems to be the opposite. Tries are often only manufactured when the Irish attack has taken opponents through countless phases before eventually breaking them down. Either that, or they typically score off a driving maul or lineout move. Indeed, how often do you see this Irish side go through multiple phases, even in the opposition 22, and come away with nothing to show for it? We saw something similar in Cardiff two years ago and we saw it again last night. Ireland dominating possession but proving unable to manufacture many clear-cut opportunities. In a game of tight margins, three tries to nil tells its own story. I don’t necessarily buy the line that Ireland are too predictable, but you wonder if teams find them overly difficult to defend against. The impression persists that if you stop the Irish maul and have a good defensive lineout, you’re half-way there in terms of stopping Schmidt’s side.

Perhaps they’re not as good as we thought they were? Maybe, but Chicago wasn’t that long ago. We know only too well what this team is capable of. The problem has been consistency of performance. I think there is also a need to change some personnel. It sounds like sacrilege, but I think there are grounds for dropping CJ Stander. The Munster man is a superb workhorse and provides the sort of go forward ball that most teams yearn for. I can’t help but feel that he’s a bit too one dimensional at the highest level, though. Stander’s stats are off the chart, but sometimes mere figures don’t tell the whole story. Prior to yesterday’s game, the naturalised South African terrorised Six Nations defences with his peerless ability to break the gain line. Last night, every time he tried his usual trick, he got Sam Warburton. I’ve seen Stander hailed recently as a potential Test Lion. Munster’s favourite import is indeed a dependable and totemic player. In terms of international class, though, he’s not in Warburton’s league.

I’ve long been a fan of Peter O’Mahony. I think he’s a fine player. Technically brilliant, good at the breakdown and a consummate lineout operator to boot. The Cork man has had his injury problems, but he’s becoming impossible to ignore. Whether Stander or Heaslip is dropped to accommodate him is a debatable but secondary point. For me, O’Mahony has to start against England. Jared Payne will also come into contention and there’s no doubt that his reliability has been missed, especially in defence. The Henshaw-Ringrose partnership is worth sticking with, however, and Payne may have to settle for a bench spot. Iain Henderson will also come into the reckoning and there’s an argument for starting Cian Healy after a series of impressive cameos.

Selection aside, an international season that started so promisingly is ending with Ireland having an almighty point to prove. Having been slayed by the Dragon, Schmidt’s men will seek redemption next week against the old enemy. It’s a tough ask. It wasn’t meant to be this way. It’s great to see North resurrecting his Lions hopes, but you sense a few Irishmen are also fighting for selection (Rhys Webb’s performance last night highlighted that Conor Murray’s Lions Test berth is far from a formality). The English fixture may no longer be the grand finale we were hoping for, but it’s become a game Schmidt’s men, for a whole host of reasons, dare not lose.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey