Friday, January 05, 2007

The Ten Big Questions of 2007 - Part Four

10.Seriously though, will this be Irish rugby's annus mirabilis?
Ok, in question no.3 we had a little giggle at the cock-eyed optimism around Irish rugby at the moment, hoping to get the satirical high ground occupied in good time for any collapse that might ensue.

No doubt about it, however, even the most cynical, sagacious and cautious of observers must agree that this current incarnation represents Irish rugby's finest vintage, with only token reference being given to the Triple Crowns of the 1980s and the Grand Slam of 1948.

The latter achievement, of course, remains outstanding for the current side, and represents the first of this year's three-pronged assault on posterity. While any observer of Irish sport will treat expectation and confidence with the coldest of skeptical shoulders - fearing the inevitable Saipan or case of Olympic diarrhoea that lurks around every brightly hopeful corner - based on current form, there is no reason not to consider a best case scenario.

First the Six Nations: Ireland are currently the best national team in Europe and play their two traditionally strongest rivals at home. Both of these, however, are reaping the bitter crop sown by their domestic structural problems. French clubs play too many games, English clubs too, neither international set-up is allowed the luxurious weeks of fine-tweaking the Irish system is built around, and in the case of England, the emotional comedown from their World Cup triumph in 2003 is only now bottoming out.

Presuming that the alien atmosphere of Dublin's northside won't spook the home team too much, the biggest foreseeable challenge will be the Welsh game in Cardiff, on the first Sunday of the tournament. Ireland's last trip there was as patsies to Wales' Grand Slam-clinching game in 2005; the two nations' stocks have gone in opposite directions since then, although the Welsh showed in the second half of their recent test against Australia that off the cuff running remains their most dangerous weapon.

Cardiff holds a fragment of Irish rugby's soul now, being as it was the venue for Munster's Heineken Cup win last May (or "the publishing event of the year" as it has also been described) and Europe's no.1 rugby franchise are set fair to make the "Two in a Row" box set this Christmas' must have item for the discerning bandwagon-jumper.

Despite the success in 2006 being seen as the end of a long and trying quest, Munster have not faded away happily with their memories this season. On the contrary, garbed in the cloak of champions, they have strolled through their qualifying pool with masterly ease. There have been no other outstanding sides in the tournament so far, with Biarritz and Stade Francais performing solidly and Llanelli exceeding expectations. While the remaining group games look vaguely troublesome (Bourgoin away Leicester in Thomond), negotiating them successfully will provide a clear view of another triumph.Don't back against another meeting with Leinster along the way though...

After all that, if you have energy left, is the hulking behemoth of the World Cup. Spread over six weeks and asking of the finalists to play a test in every one of them (albeit there is a nine day rest between Ireland's crucial games against France and Argentina) it was little wonder that the 2003 final seemed to be won by the team that fell over the line first.

It is accepted that Ireland need to top their group to make the latter stages, given that the runner up in their pool faces the winners of the All Blacks' one, and that such a meeting is generally considered to mark a full stop for any other nation's tournament.

Achieving this will require the defeat of the home nation, France, as well as those troublesome Argentines. Given that it was the loss to the latter in Lens in the 1999 World Cup that marked the nadir since which Irish rugby has been on an upward trajectory, it would be cathartic to revisit vengeance on the Pumas on French soil.

Defeating the hosts, however, is a tremendous challenge in any tournament, and were it to be achieved, would present only Scotland or Italy in the way of an unprecedented semi-final place.
At this juncture - with many precarious months to go - the game with France in Stade de France looks set up to be the definitive moment in this era of Irish rugby, a day when true greatness might be won.

When you put it all down like that, it seems fantastically straightforward; indeed, shouldn't we be arranging that open-top bus ride now?! It would, of course, take an incredible amount of good fortune, or at least the avoidance of the bad variety, to make it all come true. But none of the optimistic foretelling above is utterly outlandish or downright silly; it could really be a year to remember.


Anonymous sportcrazy said...

Trackback from Rugby video roundup 2006

8:00 a.m.  

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