However, for Ireland, this World Cup appears to be a case of not peaking at all.
When all the talk was of a golden generation having benefited from the most costly and thorough preparation imaginable, and when we expected a sleek, purring machine to sweep through to the knockout stages, all we’ve have seen so far in this tournament is a team full of muscle-bound, leaden-footed and overly-programmed players.
They were flat against Namibia, even flatter against Georgia’s second string, and at a critical moment when a massive performance was needed against France in Paris last Friday, Ireland were underwhelming yet again.
Statistically, defeat didn’t signal the end of the road, but the chronic lack of cohesion that has lead to dynamic being replaced by shambolic left nearly 30,000 dismayed Irish supporters in the Stade de France wondering why they had bothered to make the trip in the first.
The number crunchers will tell you that Ireland can still qualify for the quarter-finals, but on the evidence of their three matches to date, they have no chance of beating Argentina by a margin of eight points and scoring at least four tries in the process this Sunday. There is an enthusiasm and a passion about everything that Argentina have accomplished to date, while the Irish have been reduced to a joyless rabble.
To expect this team, with so many players misfiring, to run in four tries against the unbeaten Argentineans is akin to expecting Bertie Ahern to make sense when he’s before the Mahon Tribunal. Not alone is the task a mammoth one, but there is an added incentive for Argentina, who if they beat Ireland, will avoid the tournament favorites, New Zealand, in the quarter-final.
Not surprisingly, the southern hemisphere counties have so far looked in the best form. New Zealand remain in pole position to win the cup for the first time since 1987 while South Africa appear to be their main challengers at this moment. Of the European contingent, only France look in any way capable of reaching the final.
If things have been depressing enough on the pitch, there has been a swirl of rumor and innuendo surrounding the squad in general, and Ronan O’Gara in particular. When the French sports paper, L’Equipe, mentioned that O’Gara had a large gambling debt, there were howls of outrage from the Irish media who promptly repeated the allegation.
There were also further suggestions that O’Gara’s marriage was in difficulty, as well as incessant gossip that there was bickering within the camp, and that some players were at loggerheads.
The rumors about O’Gara’s private life have been doing the rounds for nearly a year, and one wonders why, in advance of a wholly predictable media spotlight at the World Cup, coach Eddie O’Sullivan or his PR people didn’t attempt to head the possee off at the pass. Instead, as the pressure built up on one of the team’s key players who was looking increasingly uneasy, it was left until the aftermath of the defeat by France for O’Gara to address the issue.
“The gambling affront doesn’t bother me because I’ll say it straight up: I do back horses and do it frequently. I own racehorses and have placed bets since I was 18. But the fact that I have a troubled marriage is quite disappointing to hear,” he said.
“It’s not for me to say I have a perfect marriage. Like everyone else, little things happen but that’s behind closed doors at home. I love my wife, and she loves me, that’s all I can say on the matter.”
O’Gara declared the matter put to bed, and hopefully he’s right, however, he has played with a haunted look and that is hardly a coincidence. Elsewhere, Paul O’Connell, Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan, Donncha O’Callaghan, Denis Leamy and David Wallace – front-line players who have started in all three games – have so far performed disastrously below par.
In fact, only the captain, Brian O’Driscoll, full-back Girvan Dempsey and Simon Easterby, who restored some personal pride with a storming display against the French, are currently in the credit column.
So, what has transformed one of the world’s leading teams into this embarrassing shambles? What has gone wrong? The listless players might have over-trained, and they might have believed in their own hype going into the games against Namibia and Georgia, however, if O’Sullivan basked in the reflected glory of his side’s previous achievements, he must now carry the can for this downward spiral.
He has been overly conservative, sticking by and large with his tried and tested players when many have clearly off form. Only Peter Stringer and Denis Hickie paid a price for their performances in the first two matches, while Geordan Murphy, who had only appeared for 30 seconds previously, was dropped from the 22 that met France.
Now if the mercurial Murphy had played badly, and he if was being replaced by someone who measured up to his own considerable talent, O’Sullivan’s decision might have made sense, but instead, in came the journeyman Gavin Duffy. The fact that Duffy was left sitting on the bench when Ireland were in trouble was more evidence of the coach’s twisted logic, and as for Murphy, if he decides now to retire from international rugby after such shabby treatment, no one will blame him.
On the technical side, Ireland’s line-out – so often a platform for attack – flopped last Friday, and a hard-pressed scrum was also hanging on by a thread. The depressing spin-off was that the team’s two main attacking prongs, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, were deprived of possession.
In the end, France didn’t even have to be at their best to grind out the win that effectively guarantees their place in the quarter-finals. Trailing by 15-3 midway through the second half, the Irish were just about alive, until two tries by wing Vincent Clerc killed the contest off.
The prospect of Ireland recovering some composure and some pride and scoring four tries against Argentina is dim and distant. After so much expectation, the team is surely doomed to a humiliating exit after Sunday’s final pool game.
It may well be the end of the line for several players, but not for the coach. Before the tournament, O’Sullivan was awarded a four-year extension to his contract by the IRFU.
A case of blind faith if ever there was one.