Not that his employers the IRFU were ever thinking about putting him out to pasture, it was more that several dissenting voices in the media saw O’Sullivan as a busted flush. A control freak who had made Ireland highly competitive, but who didn’t have what it took to move his side up to the next level.
Well, there was an amount of redemption for the coach when Shane Horgan stretched a long arm out at Twickenham last Saturday to score one of the most celebrated tries in Irish rugby history. A third successive victory over England, and a second Triple Crown in three seasons – that was the direct spin-off from a rollercoaster 28-24 win, but there was more for O’Sullivan and his players to savor.
This Six Nations championship has been by no means perfect. Ireland stuttered against Italy, were positively bipolar in Paris where they floundered in the first half before exploding in the second, flattered to deceive against fragile Wales, struggled to see off limited Scotland, and then had all the luck against England.
Highly creative backs such as Gordon D’Arcy, Geordan Murphy and O’Driscoll mixed the good with the decidedly average, the playmaker Ronan O’Gara was inconsistent, and if it hadn’t been for O’Connell – who was by some way the best player in the tournament – as well as the emerging Denis Leamy and Jerry Flannery, Ireland and O’Sullivan might have sunk without trace.
Yet the results are incontrovertible. Another Triple Crown, and four wins from five games that turned out to be the same as France who were awarded the title on the basis of a superior points difference.
Coaches may not make teams, but they certainly can ruin them. Matt Williams was dumped by Scotland last year following an appalling run, however, his replacement Frank Hadden, with the same group of players, won three games and defeated both France and England this season. O’Sullivan is reminded that he has arguably the most gifted group of players ever to play for Ireland, and that he has yet to get the best out of them.
Both points may be true, but to claim that any of Ireland’s professional coaches would make an equally good fist of the job is nonsense. Discerning rugby watchers who have sat through so many shambolic performances over the years when Ireland were either poorly prepared or patently unfit will welcome the rigor, knowledge and organization that O’Sullivan has brought to the table.
Some people in the media appear to want charm before efficiency. It’s true that as O’Sullivan’s influence has grown, he has put more of a personal stamp on the coach’s role. With less delegation comes more accountability, and no one could say he has refused to take the heat when things have gone wrong.
Brian Ashton, a former Ireland coach, once famously said after a championship defeat that precipitated his dismissal, that he didn’t know whose gameplan the team had adhered to, but it certainly wasn’t his. Someone like O’Sullivan would never find himself in that sort of situation.
Not to downplay Horgan’s outstanding match-winning try, or the result itself last Saturday, but the way Ireland performed was probably the most refreshing aspect of a memorable occasion. Because of England’s current desperate form, the Irish were burdened with the favorites’ tag at Twickenham, and that was something that had never happened in living memory.
The expectation would have brought added pressure, and it wouldn’t have been too surprising if Ireland had played a cramped, conservative sort of game with a view to capitalizing on England’s mistakes rather than creating anything. Yet, it panned out in a completely different way.
Ireland made the running – literally. This was expansive, confident, 15-man rugby, and you could be forgiven for wondering which team had home advantage. And this was the approach that O’Sullivan had promised back in the gloomy days of the autumn. An Ireland team being less predictable, and infinitely more ambitious.
Again, it wasn’t as if the execution was perfect, but the intent was clear. O’Sullivan is acutely aware that for Ireland to make an impression at next year’s World Cup, his players have to expand their options. Forward superiority is not always enough, and dominance behind the scrum is not always enough, but the two joined together can be irresistible.
To make that move, and to win next season’s Six Nations, and to reach the semi-final of the World Cup, there are still issues that have to be dealt with. Andrew Trimble is a fine prospect, but he is not a natural winger and Leinster’s Rob Kearney should be given an opportunity during this summer’s tour of New Zealand and Australia. At the moment, there is no immediate back-up for O’Gara and Peter Stringer, and while David Wallace, Simon Easterby and Leamy have all had good championships, the balance of the back row may not yet be right.
“We’re a better team now than we were six months ago,” said O’Sullivan. “We had difficult times and we had to ask ourselves if we were going in the right direction. Now it’s about becoming a better rugby team, and it’s not done yet.”
And as for the critics who insisted that O’Sullivan wasn’t the right man to lead Ireland forward: they were wrong, and the coach was right.
If you’re a bit weary after a St. Patrick’s weekend which kicked off with an Irish Gold Cup winner at Cheltenham and then culminated in a raucous annexation of the Triple Crown at Twickenham, spare a thought for Roy Keane.
Not that he’d want you to mind, but following intense celebrations of Irish sporting success, Keane’s bit-part in Celtic’s Scottish League Cup win failed to make more than a ripple either side of the pond.
In fact, the sight of Keane in the green and white of his new club holding a piece of silverware without a trace of joy on his face probably told a story. Replaced after an hour of Celtic’s 3-0 win over Dunfermline due to a hamstring injury, the game might well have been his last ever cup final.
Speaking to the Irish Times last week, Keane intimated that retirement was closer than ever. “I have to see how my body is. Even if I had stayed at Manchester United, I always intended weighing my options up and going to see the specialist. I spoke to the Celtic doctor about that when I signed, that was my plan. I’ll see in the summer.
“I’ll have to put my family first. I’ve put football first always. I tended to do that always, especially at United. I’ve promised that come this summer, I’ll weigh myself up physically and do what is best for my wife and kids.”
Still troubled by a hip problem which necessitated surgery in 2002, the 34-year-old is obviously coveted by Celtic who want him to continue for another season and play a role in their Champions League campaign.
Keane will also have testimonial game when Manchester United play Celtic at Old Trafford in early May, but there is a sadness that one of Ireland’s greatest ever soccer players is unable to go out with a bang. History would want Keane to leave the game with his competitive rage still intact. His departure really should have followed scenes like those at Cheltenham and at Twickenham, but in the short term, there has been the controversy of Saipan, the abrupt end at Manchester United, and the anti-climax with Celtic to reflect on.
His legacy is far greater than that.
Is Ryder a replica?
Six months to go before Ireland stages its first ever Ryder Cup. The K Club will host the matches between Europe, who are going for an unprecedented three wins in a row, and the USA in September, and already the anticipation for an event which will generate an estimated