This was bipolar rugby like no one has ever seen in the Six Nations championship. The divisions between those who regard the first half as a true reflection of the team, and those who would prefer to judge the players by what they achieved in the second half have already boiled down to whether you’re for or against coach Eddie O’Sullivan.
But, first things first, before Ireland’s game against Wales at Lansdowne Road on Sunday. O’Sullivan has led a charmed life over the past few months despite the fact that his team performed abysmally in the matches last autumn against New Zealand, Australia and Romania, and despite the fact that even after the return of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, there was another underwhelming display against Italy before the debacle or the glory of Paris.
O’Sullivan has been legitimately challenged by media and supporters alike for his selection policy, for his supposedly autocratic style of management, and most important of all, for a recent series of disappointing results, but there is an element of amnesia here.
During the 1990s, Ireland were a shambles, lacking conviction, fitness and belief. Rugby had embraced professionalism, but while the Irish players were now banking a cheque every month, both they and their bosses remained amateurish in their approach.
O’Sullivan helped to change that. His predecessor Warren Gatland knew the game and connected with players, but O’Sullivan learned from Gatland’s mistakes and was able to bring a new efficiency to the table. Ireland might not win World Cups or Six Nations titles, but they would be well-prepared, highly competitive, and as has been demonstrated, capable of beating Australia and South Africa as well as England and France.
So O’Sullivan has managed to restore some credibility. The days of embarrassing inconsistency when the team would be fired up one day and flat as a pancake the next are long gone. However, as his players fail to match national expectation, he has now reached a pivotal moment 18 months before the next World Cup.
Many of the questions posed in the aftermath of the 43-31 defeat by France are likely to be answered on Sunday. Is Ireland a quality side full of ambitious players which had a few bad breaks in Paris, or a side which has no idea what gameplan it is supposed to be adhering to?
Wales come to Lansdowne Road as Six Nations champions, but bizarrely they are at a much lower ebb than the Irish. Injuries to several key players at the start of the championship were always going to damage their prospects, however, they are now riven by internal strife.
While O’Sullivan appears bullet-proof, Wales’s coach Mike Ruddock – who less than a year ago led his team to a glorious Grand Slam – resigned last week in order to spend more time with his family. The family line is about as believable as the Flat Earth Society’s mission statement, and in fact, Ruddock was ousted by a group of his players which didn’t feel he was good enough.
In his place has come his former assistant, Scott Johnson, who is clearly the players’ choice. But public opinion is strongly in favor of Ruddock, and now Wales has to deliver at Lansdowne Road or face wrath and ridicule.
In the normal run of events, Ireland would be confident enough of winning, but Wales have an extra motivation in order to justify their coup. Meanwhile, Paul O’Connell, who was outstanding in Paris, is a doubt due to a shoulder injury, and without him, Irish prospects are seriously reduced.
The theory that Ireland only succeeded in scoring four second-half tries in Paris because France effectively lost interest has irked O’Sullivan. When it was put to him that his side was playing “catch-up rugby” – meaning that the players gambled on a high-risk strategy and got away with it – he claimed he didn’t know what catch-up rugby was when in fact he has used the term on several occasions in the past.
This didn’t endear him to an inquisitorial media, and relations are currently strained. Ireland have to win, and to win in a way that solves the puzzle of Paris. Wales have to win as well to save their skins. It just might be a bit competitive.
Bohan is ‘greatest failure’
A row is only a row if the main protagonist is box office, and even though Ger Loughnane is now well removed from his time as Clare hurling coach, when he speaks from the ditch, the GAA community has a habit of listening.
This past week, Loughnane has clashed with the chairman of the Clare county board, Michael McDonagh, and he also referred to the current Clare selector and long servant of hurling in the county, Fr. Harry Bohan, as the “greatest failure ever in the history of Clare hurling.”
Loughnane’s outburst is probably the culmination of a battle he has running with several senior figures in Clare hurling. A distinguished former player, a legendary coach and motivator who led his county from the wilderness to win two highly-charged All Ireland titles in 1995 and ’97, he has become an acerbic and forthright media commentator.
As ever with Loughnane, it is not easy to pinpoint the origins of this spat. He has called for heads in Clare hurling in the past, urging the current coach Anthony Daly to “clear out” his backroom team, but what sparked this confusing set of allegations and counter-allegations could be a recent awards ceremony in the county.
Loughnane was not included in a team honouring the best Clare players of the best 25 years, and when other awards were handed out presumably for sterling service to Noel Walsh and to Bohan, it is a reasonable bet that Loughnane felt snubbed.
To muddy the waters further, physiotherapist Colum Flynn and the renowned sports injuries specialist, Ger Hartmann, have both recently resigned from the Clare management team. Loughnane has suggested that his own close friendship with Flynn might have undermined the physio’s position.
Confused? Join the club. Yet the row, because of Loughnane’s potential for incendiary comment, continues to run and run disproportionately, while the issue of the suspensions handed down to the Dublin and Tyrone players following the now infamous Battle of Omagh, appears to be generating fewer headlines.
For the record, Ciaran Whelan, Kevin Bonner and Alan Brogan of Dublin were suspended for eight weeks each, while Bryan Cullen was banned for four weeks. Eight-week suspensions were also given to Tyrone’s Michael McGee, Owen Mulligan and Kevin Hughes. Dublin’s Peadar Andrews and the Tyrone doctor, Seamus Cassidy, were warned as to their future conduct, and the two county boards were each fined