With 2001 drawing to a close and we take stock of rugby in this country we can be reasonably happy with the state of affairs. We have an international side rated 6th in the official rankings,
With 2001 drawing to a close and we take stock of rugby in this country we can be reasonably happy with the state of affairs. We have an international side rated 6th in the official rankings, we have one side qualified, and two more in contention, for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. We have two players, Keith Wood and Brian O’Driscoll, who are considered the best in the world in their respective positions, plus a high degree of talent besides. By all accounts our structure is viewed with great envy from across the water as we head towards the 2003 World Cup. We do have the question of club versus province and how the bedrock of the game is suffering in this professional era. However dealing with the highest level for the moment, we can then look forward with a fair degree of optimism as long as we temper that optimism with a degree of reality and patience.
The past year was a mixed bag of emotions in a time when world events put a proper perspective on sport in general. At international level there was a great start to the season with two wins from two, including that memorable victory over the French at Lansdowne Road. Then the Foot & Mouth enforced break before a return to action and the disaster that was Murrayfield. Victory then over a poor Welsh side in Cardiff before derailing the sweet chariot’s charge to a Grand Slam. The euphoria of that victory made the defeat in Scotland all the more unacceptable to people who felt cheated of a Triple Crown/Grand Slam celebration in Dublin on that October night. The performance of the Irish side in Lansdowne Road that day was simply superb. It was one of those great days that will live long in the memory. But then again that’s the nature of victory over the auld enemy. Had we played them in the Spring, as originally scheduled and before the Lions tour, would the result have been different ? We’ll never know. But a month later, a new look New Zealand arrived and Ireland were beaten 40-29. Had England played John Mitchell’s youngsters then, how would it have turned out ? We’ll never know.
But what we do know is this. We start the Six Nations at home to Wales and given that Graham Henry is likely to be still in charge, we should buck the trend of recent years and win that one. But when we swing low into Twickenham on February 16th, Martin Johnson will be looking to settle a score. The Scots and Italians visit Dublin before our final game away to a rejuvenated French side and they’ve a little score to settle as well.
In championship fare, it’s normal enough to aim for home victory with an away point or better, a bonus. Will Irish supporters be happy to beat just Wales, Scotland and Italy ? Hardly. Would we settle for wins just in Twickenham and Stade de France ? But consider this. We go into the coming season with a new management and with some players possibly coming to the end of their tenure. And so the call for patience. Give the selectors and selected a chance.
The reality is that there is little enough between four of the six Six Nations sides, Ireland currently on top of that quartet. France are France. England are operating on a different level. What sets them apart is consistency. Before their Lansdowne lament they had gone 15 games without defeat and they then turned around, got back on track, and defeated two of the superpowers.
Consistency is what it’s all about. It’s what the new Irish management will look for. Consistency of performance.