By being one of four teams level at the top of the table after three games, are Ireland over-achieving in the most competitive tournament for years or are they under-achieving in the lowest-quality competition for eons? As for how we decide what side of the fence to sit on, well, it’s hard enough to keep track of opinions without having to keep track of the reasons for them into the bargain.
Ireland picked up their second win of the tournament last Sunday but it had as much to do with the utter disarray that spread through the Welsh side like a creeping bout of bird flu as it had with any gleaming magnificence from O’Sullivan’s players.
There were two teams involved in the match at Lansdowne Road and both of them were Irish. There was the Ireland that couldn’t lay a finger on the ball when Stephen Jones was playing at out-half for Wales and then there was the Ireland that splashed water on its face and shook itself as Jones limped off injured after 20 minutes. This was the Ireland that took control of the game, running out 31-5 winners in the end.
On the face of it, 31-5 brooks no argument. That’s a hiding, a thrashing, a powerful flex of muscle over the defending champions. And yet, and yet. Those first 20 minutes can’t be glossed over. Wales owned the game for that period and Ireland were little more than a flailing rabble. Andrew Trimble – in for Tommy Bowe – was bamboozled by Matthew Watkins’s kick through and Mark Jones touched down to put Wales in the lead with only eight minutes on the clock. They didn’t score thereafter but still dictated terms until Jones’s departure.
And then they sent in Gavin. Poor, poor Gavin Henson, so out of sorts and out of his depth they’d have been as well sending in Jim Henson. Or Miss Piggy. Henson got just as many wolf whistles from a crowd that was relentless in its jibing and jeering at his greased-back hair and perma-tan. It was tempting to feel sorry for the poor chap, the more so the worse he got.
And boy did he get worse. Memory banks were trawled through to try and find a more abject performance from a visiting player at Lansdowne but nobody could place one. Where Wales had kept 90 percent of possession in their hands up to his arrival, picking, driving and recycling to great effect, Henson kicked just about everything that made its way to him. Not only that but he kicked atrociously.
Rarely can a member of an international team in any sport have looked – and, you’d assume, felt – so alone among his teammates. There were no high fives when he came on, no pats on the back or pep talks from his forwards. This is a Wales side with the San Andreas Fault running through it, blatantly rudderless and leaderless to even the most casual observer. Henson crystallized just how badly they were feeling about life on Sunday.
So of course, Ireland trounced them. David Wallace and Peter Stringer scored Munster tries off the back of the mostly Munster pack and Shane Horgan ran in as Leinster a back-line try as you could wish to see. Ronan O’Gara kept the scoreboard ticking over by slotting a succession of penalties given away by a Welsh side that just couldn’t bring itself to care in the second half. A 26-point win was the least Ireland could expect in the circumstances.
Which brings us back to our original conundrum – how are we supposed to feel about them and their coach? Scotland are coming to Lansdowne in a fortnight and even though they’ve just beaten both France and England, expectation has gone into such a state of overdrive in Dublin now that anything short of a similar lesson handed down to the Scots will be given short shrift. There’s every chance that O’Sullivan could go into the March 18 game at Twickenham 80 minutes away from a first championship for a generation, with half the rugby folk in the country behind him and the other half grumbling about how lucky he is to find himself in such a position.
Any wonder we’re confused?
collect their awards
Annual awards are a rum business, especially since every once in a while they’re handed out in an area where nothing much worth rewarding has been achieved. Which is why you couldn’t help the uneasy feeling that abounded at the Eircom Soccer Awards in the Citywest Hotel in Dublin last Sunday night.
Featuring more forced bonhomie than the bride’s father’s table at a shotgun wedding, the place was filled with tuxedoed players from the Ireland squad all looking decidedly uncomfortable with being lined up to be told what great fellas they were. Even Robbie Keane had the decency to look mortified when going up to receive the award for goal of the year.
Shay Given hadn’t a whole pile more to say for himself, although his award for Senior Player Of The Year was easily the most deserved of the evening. Richard Dunne and Kenny Cunningham were nominated alongside him (and you want evidence for how poor a year it was overall, that’s it right there – the goalkeeper and two center-halves topping the performance tree) but giving it to anyone other than the goalkeeper who picked up five man-of-the-match awards through the year didn’t bear thinking about.
But however well you’d wish Given and Kevin Doyle and Sean McCaffrey and all the other award winners on the night, there was still something artificial about the evening, something that didn’t ring true. There was lots of talk about fresh starts and optimism for the future but little – if indeed any – acknowledgment of the direness of the year just gone that had led to the need for these fresh starts and optimism.
The worst manifestation of all this overbearing positivity was the fact that Brian Kerr’s name wasn’t mentioned once all night. It’s as if within Irish soccer circles now he’s regarded as little more than a tidemark on the national collar, evidence that grubbier days existed once upon a time. An outsider would have been astonished to learn that he was the national manager just over four months ago.
It’s a sorry shame that we can’t be grown up enough in this country to give a man such as Kerr his due just because he failed when he had a go at the big job. Glossing over the work he did down the years, conveniently forgetting the straws his underage sides provided for the rest of us to grasp at when the senior team wasn’t worth a damn is a rotten way to treat him. There’s an insidious campaign being subtly waged from Merrion Square in which everything from failure to qualify for Germany to the breakdown in spirit in the squad to the lack of Granny Rule-qualified players in that squad is being pinned on him.
He clearly pissed off too many of the wrong people in the FAI and is paying for it now. It may be worthy of them but the rest of us ought to be able to rise above that kind of carry-on.
Apologies ring hollow
So the Dublin and Tyrone county boards officially apologized to Central Council for the actions of their players during the league match in Omagh a few weeks back. Seems Mickey Harte didn’t get the memo, however. Either that, or somebody should post him the page from the dictionary on which the meaning of an apology is written.
Last I checked, an apology was an admission of wrongdoing alongside an expression of regret for same. How do you square that, then, with Harte’s wisecrack after his side’s easy win over Monaghan in Sunday’s McKenna Cup final? “Great football out there,” he said, “great to see it. Unfortunately it probably won’t merit two weeks’ reportage [like the fight did] but sure it’ll do one day.” Moreover, how do you square it with the fact that all three of his banned players are appealing their suspensions?
Either these people are sorry for what happened or they’re not. If they are, if they truly are, then they should shut up about it. By continually yapping away about it, they sound like five-year-olds complaining about being punished for stealing from their mother’s purse.
Chances are, though, they’re not remotely sorry about it and their softly-worded apologies to Central Council are nothing short of window dressing. They would do well to remember this bout of talking out of both sides of their mouth the next time they try and get one of their players cleared on a disciplinary matter by arguing double standards like they did with Ryan McMenamin last summer.