The higher you are the harder you fall, and Saturday’s defeat in Paris was akin to a crash landing from atop the Eiffel Tower.
Ireland were going to lose sometime, but the manner in which France derailed the Gram Slam champions was shuddering.
So much for the ‘best team in the world’ mantle Brent Pope bestowed on us after beating a disinterested South Africa only last November, eh. Ireland are now fifth in the union rankings, but the gap to France in fourth is “huge” says Pope, who was even more pessimistic after a night’s sleep.
Okay, a few bounces of the ball didn’t go our way, but France, in fairness, could have ran in another fistful of tries. Whether by accident or design, their much-maligned coach Marc Lievremont now has a ‘total rugby’ team at his disposal, full of natural physicality and flair, with more options in reserve than most countries have on the pitch.
Ireland, by comparison, appear threadbare beyond the first 17-18, who suddenly looked their collective age at the Stade de France. And not just John Hayes, who has carried the pack for too long. A worrying quotient of other key players are on the slippery slope side of 30. The backbone of the team have been together a decade now, which in rugby wear-and-tear terms is a lifetime. Sure, as Conor O’Shea says, as a nation we over-react when we win, and ditto when we lose; but next year’s World Cup, which was being viewed with such promise only a week ago, now looks a foreboding assignment.
But what do we expect? As George Hook reasoned, there are around 120 professional players here, compared to thousands in France and England. On that basis, the experts agree, Ireland have punched above their weight under Eddie O’Sullivan and now Declan Kidney.
What the RTE panel didn’t broach is the fact that the relative dearth of talent coming through is the con flipside to the latterday success of pro’ rugby in this country. The provincial system that’s created a series of European Cup-conquering ‘clubs’, and a keenly competitive national side, also has a drawback in that there’s simply so little to choose from; especially with the All-Ireland League in perpetual crisis.
With only four (at best) top-flight teams, prospective players know their chances are going to be limited and it’s something that could well be deterring young Irish sportsmen, especially teenagers, from pursuing rugby at elite level, particularly in the specialist positions.