Monday, March 19, 2007

An Enchanting Team, But Not World Champions

And so the Six Nations plunged the bucket even deeper into the emotional well and came up brimming once again. Of course, it was fitting that the conclusion to this year's tournament (the charming epilogue in Cardiff aside) should be ridiculously overwrought, given the excess of drama of the previous weeks.

Saturday's torment was only mild, to my mind, Vincent Clerc's intervention in Dublin being the mortal wound, Elvis Vermuelen's merely the coup de grace. Incidentally, regarding the great kerfuffle over the legitimacy of that late French try on Saturday, the referee, Craig Joubert, had stated to the TMO, Simon McDowell, that he had seen the touchdown, and that he would award the try unless McDowell could see any reason not to.

Viewers on RTE would not have been aware of this above George Hamilton's excited tones, but the BBC commentators were able to point this out quite calmly. Quite why Joubert needed to put everyone through the additional agony just to verify the evidence of his own eyes is uncertain. Perhaps he has a history of hallucinations.<"span class="fullpost">

Over the course of the tournament Ireland would have been perfectly worthy champions of the Six Nations. Their best was as good as, if not better than France's peak moments, and as for their worst? Well, even in Ireland's most puzzlingly diffident moods, they never would have lost to England in the manner that France did.

But it is the way of the world that the French will consider themselves perfectly acceptable contenders for 'le coupe du monde' while we will scorn ourselves for ever having dared to dream. It could just be, however, that our failure in the Six Nations (failure? I know, I know, those damned expectations) might be more valuable than any success.

We can at least thank the Six Nations - not a vintage one, it has been accepted - for providing two things. Firstly, a robust examination of all elements of Ireland's game and secondly, a timetable of fixtures very similar as that required to navigate to the latter stages of the World Cup.

Over the course of the tournament Ireland's scrum did surprisingly well, especially against England's. Surprisingly in the sense that most expected it to be obliterated. However, it is still a wobbly affair and the achievement of parity is often a victory in itself.

Ireland's lineout, once the keystone around which all our ambitions were built, was often disastrous and the restoration of it to its former glory is key to any great ambitions in the autumn. Losing one set-piece may be considered unfortunate, losing two is just carelessness.

Around the breakdown Ireland's possession of two openside flankers masquerading as centres (O'Driscoll and D'Arcy can play a bit on their feet too) often covers their lack of one in the pack. Dear old Scotland gave probably the best examination of this area, spoiling incessantly and rucking mightily, the nuisance-factor here being key to Ireland's ineffectual display at Murrayfield.

Central to Ireland's schizophrenic performances in the tournament was Ronan O'Gara. When O'Gara played well - like against England where is tactical kicking was flawless, or in the try-hunt against Italy where his passing was the bugle call for most of Ireland's infantry charges - Ireland too played well.

When O'Gara struggled - as against Wales where for long periods his boot could barely find the ground never mind touch, ditto with Scotland - Ireland struggled. The form of the number 10, or more accurately, his consistency, will be a prerequisite for success in the autumn.

But at the end of it all you have the backs (and David Wallace)! If rugby were played on Mount Olympus, Zeus and Apollo would be out in the back yard trying to imitate the play of D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Hickie, Horgan, Dempsey (and David Wallace). We may not have the strength in depth, the beef or the consistency to win the World Cup, but there will be few teams who'll dazzle like Ireland will, that is for sure.

The Six Nations might have delivered a timely survey of where Ireland actually stand, and dampened our expectations to nicely realistic levels, but for sheer enjoyment of the finer aspects of the game, I know who I'll be following come September.

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Blogger Fence said...

You know losing the Six Nations is probably better for us. Focuses the mind on what we need to change. Plus the manner of it, that last minute try to France will mean that we now should be even more focused in the dying seconds (Italy's try is different).

I'm still optimistic.

11:29 a.m.  
Anonymous Uncle Junior said...

Had we won the 6 Nations an unrealistic optimism and wildly careening bandwagon would have been unleashed. Instead we go to France nursing grudges against our two main pool opponents; les Bleus for their Croke Park larceny and Argentinia for the horror of Lens in 1999. We Irish seem to respond well to a sense of victimhood and persecution so I too am quite pleased with how things are set up for the Autumn.

12:19 p.m.  

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