Category: Archive

Cruel loss

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Could it have been that with all the thousands of words written and spoken about this momentous contest, that one critical aspect was forgotten about? Sunday was a landmark alright, an occasion when ecumenism replaced prejudice — at least temporarily — yet it was also a Six Nations championship game that needed to be won. And France, and not Ireland, took the honors.
Not because they were infinitely better, and not because Ireland weren’t stubborn and courageous in the face of an immensely physical challenge. France emerged victorious because sport remains beautifully fickle.
With two minutes left of a match that was memorable more for its setting than the outrageous quality of its rugby, Ronan O’Gara had kicked the Irish into a 17-13 lead. Surely now the home team would hold on to keep alive those hopes of winning every game in the championship, and of winning a first Grand Slam since 1948.
But with a minute left, France’s Vincent Clerc wriggled like an eel from a trap past the lunges of John Hayes and Neil Best, past the despairing dive of Denis Hickie, and then away from Paul O’Connell’s huge mitts to score the decisive try beneath the towering Canal End stand.
Apart from the pockets of jubilant French supporters, there was suddenly an eerie silence, borne as much of disbelief as of dismay, in the stadium. The day wasn’t meant to end like this.
The Irish players hung their heads, and you could see from France’s celebrations that they weren’t just energized by the dramatic nature of their victory. They knew this wasn’t simply another game, they were acutely aware of the resonances. They hadn’t committed robbery, not when there was so little to choose between the teams, but it was as if they had stolen something from a special occasion that had everything except the perfect finale.
If spectators traveled from all four corners of the country to be part of the GAA’s largesse, the difference was felt most in Dublin where rugby has its deepest roots in the clubs and schools on the city’s southside. Most die-hards could make their way blindfolded to Lansdowne Road, but now they had to cross the River Liffey into the supposed badlands of the northside.
The stories went that the more genteel rugby folk wondered if their cell phones would work once they were over the river. Clutching their maps, they headed for Croke Park through the faded elegance of Mountjoy Square, past clapped-out apartment blocks and on to the GAA’s gleaming monument.
For anyone who had experienced the cramped, crumbling edifice that was Lansdowne Road, this was like being beamed into an altogether brighter, grander galaxy. But despite the enthusiasm, the atmosphere was strangely muted.
To some ears, the Marseillaise sounded almost as rumbustious as Amhran na bhFiann, and while there were repeated attempts to ratchet up the noise with renditions of The Fields of Athenry, Ireland’s sporting anthem sadly petered out much too often.
Was it a portent of the bitter disappointment to come that when the players posed for an historic team photograph in the shade of the Hogan Stand that Ronan O’Gara was missing from the line-up? No one, not his colleagues or the photographers, appeared to notice that O’Gara was at the other end of the ground practicing his kicking.
Perhaps it was the undeniable fact that during the first half anyway, the home team wasn’t giving its supporters much to shout about. Seemingly overcome by the level of expectation, the Irish appeared to freeze as France stormed into the lead.
Geordan Murphy flapped lamely at the French captain Raphael Ibanez who rumbled through for the first try ever scored at Croke Park, and with Brian O’Driscoll sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Ireland desperately lacked a cutting edge.
What was more breathtaking than the sight of a foreign game being played out on the GAA’s hallowed turf, was that France only led by 13-11 at the interval. Ireland had somehow hung on and weathered the onslaught with O’Gara finishing off a handling movement in which the outstanding David Wallace had played a key role.
The second half was different with the Irish just about holding the upper hand. There were howls of disapproval when the New Zealand referee, Steve Walsh, blew his whistle prematurely as Murphy hared away for what should have been a try, and also when Marcus Horan was obstructed as he headed for the line.
However, they were marginal calls, and as the Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan pragmatically accepted, the referee didn’t decide the game, it was decided “by fate” when Clerc tore through in the dying seconds for that winning try.
It could have been a gentle warning to the new-found confidence that imbues Irish rugby today. With the national side regarded as the second-best team in the world behind New Zealand, and with Munster the reigning European champions, there might have been just a touch of hubris on and off the pitch. If so, a hard lesson has been learned.
On Saturday week, England come to Croke Park trailing history, and intense rivalry in their wake. It has already been suggested that if fate returns Ireland a favor, the scoreline will end up 19-16.
It should be another mouthwatering occasion with O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer set to return. As for last Sunday, it was a day that many thought would never come. If a few old GAA stagers shook their heads in wonder, and maybe in dismay as well, it was a new dawn.
And somewhat perversely, with Ireland losing in such gut-wrenching, last-ditch fashion, the GAA and its magnificent citadel were the real winners.

Stan’s head is on block
Ireland’s rugby team might have been defeated at Croke Park, but all is certainly not lost as far as the Six Nations championship is concerned. Ireland’s soccer team won its European Championship qualifying game last week, but manager Steve Staunton’s head is on the block.
In fact, it is now almost certain that if Staunton loses one of the two upcoming European matches against Wales or Slovakia at Croke Park next month, he will be sacked.
The problem for the manager is that even though the 2-1 victory over San Marino garnered the necessary three points to keep hopes of eventual qualification just about alive, to say that the performance was pathetic is an understatement.
Against opponents consisting of mostly amateur players, the Irish fielded highly-paid stars such as Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, John O’Shea, Steve Finnan, Kevin Kilbane and Richard Dunne and still they only secured a win through Stephen Ireland’s injury time goal.
When the search for a replacement for Brian Kerr was under way, the FAI chief executive, John Delaney, promised that he would appoint a world-class manager. While Delaney later back-tracked and insisted that he had said he would appoint a “world-class management team,” he only succeeded in heaping more pressure on Staunton who had never been in sole charge of a team at any level.
The turmoil within the Ireland camp is now such that the Sunday Independent newspaper has claimed that a number of the senior players – including Keane – will quit international soccer if Staunton is dismissed. This comes as a direct contrast to the end of Kerr’s reign when some players intimated that they would quit if Kerr wasn’t sacked.
While the players’ threats make for fascinating reading, they should really put up or shut up. Staunton is clearly a coach who is finding his way – even though that way could soon lead to the unemployment line – however, he is entitled to more from his team.
Last year’s humiliating defeat in Cyprus has been followed up by this latest embarrassment, and in the space of just a few years, Ireland’s national team has gone from qualification for a World Cup finals tournament to a joke.
Significantly, while Staunton’s stewardship hangs in the balance, there have been numerous calls for Delaney to accept some accountability for his actions, and to pack his bags.
The truth is that ever since the implosion that was Saipan in 2002, and ever since Roy Keane castigated the FAI for its amateur approach to a professional sport, Irish soccer’s governing body has continued to stumble from one crisis to the next.
The organization may have created a vibrant and well organized business at other levels, however, its know-how in dealing with the infinitely more subtle and demanding vagaries of preparing an international team has been virtually non-existent.
Delaney took a gamble when he appointed Staunton, and if in the coming weeks Staunton is forced to walk the plank, Delaney should accompany him.

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