Gerry Thornley: Irish rugby should live in the present, not the future

Gerry Thornley: Irish rugby should live in the present, not the future

Last July, let’s not forget, Ireland won a historic 2-1 victory against the All Blacks in New Zealand. It was arguably the greatest achievement ever by an Irish rugby team, even eclipsing the three Grand Slams of 1948, 2009 and 2018, as Brian O’Driscoll, for his part, argues.

There’s even an argument to claim it’s the greatest achievement ever by an Irish sports team, as Matt Williams has suggested. Leaving individual achievements aside, like at the Olympics etc., their only real rival may be the Republic of Ireland who reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup at Italia ’90.

To put this into context, only four international rugby teams had previously achieved the feat in 62 series hosted by the All Blacks for almost 120 years, and only three countries had done it once each in 50 attempts.

South Africa have won a series in New Zealand once (in 1937) in eight attempts, once in Australia (1986) in 11 attempts and once in France (1994) in ten attempts, as well as the British Lions and Irish (1971) in a dozen. attempts. England, Wales, Scotland and Argentina have never made it in an aggregate series of 16 held by the All Blacks against them and, of course, Ireland either in their previous five series in New Zealand.

It wasn’t just that Ireland had lost the dozen Tests to the All Blacks in New Zealand before last July, it was the nature of those defeats. Heavy beatings were commonplace. New Zealand attitudes towards Irish rugby were understandably dismissive, and never more so than after the record 60-0 win at Hamilton by the All Blacks to close the Test series 3-0 a decade ago . Moreover, that narrative didn’t seem to change much after the All Blacks won the series opener at Eden Park by 42-19.

Recovering to win the second and third Tests, Ireland moved up to the top spot in the world rankings with 15 wins in their last 17 matches. By any stretch of the imagination, this couldn’t be called a fluke.

Admittedly, the series victory came with a few caveats. The first was that the All Blacks’ subsequent results devalued Ireland’s victory in the series, or at least called the achievement into question.

New Zealand then suffered a fifth defeat in six Tests when they were beaten by South Africa in their Rugby Championship opener, slipping to a historic low of fifth in the world rankings. They would also suffer a first-ever home defeat to Michael Cheika’s Pumas in Christchurch in the third round.

However, in each case they responded a week later with, first, a thrilling 35-23 victory over the Springboks in Johannesburg, then a ruthless 53-3 revenge mission against Argentina in Hamilton. Admittedly, the All Blacks had a bit of luck with Mathieu Raynal’s decision to penalize Bernard Foley for wasting time with a 79th-minute penalty ahead of Jordan Barrett’s winning try in Melbourne.

Even so, last Saturday’s last gutting of the Wallabies at Eden Park ensured the All Blacks retained the 2022 Rugby Championship. So, in addition to the aforementioned weight of history, Ireland won a series against the ultimate champions of the southern hemisphere.

The second caveat is that old chestnut: did Ireland peak too early in a World Cup cycle?

Admittedly, Andy Farrell and Johnny Sexton somewhat led the charge in putting the monumental Summer Series victory in the context of the 2023 World Cup. Yet there is a real danger in all of this of becoming obsessed with breaking the glass ceiling of the World Cup quarter-finals, just as New Zealand did more and more by winning the World Cup after failing in 1991, 1995, 1999, ’03 and ’07 forward, gripped by the weight of expectation, stumbling over the line in the 2011 final at Eden Park against France, and belittling much of the brilliant rugby and achievements between the two.

Of course, it would be a huge monkey off the collective back of Irish rugby if they won a World Cup quarter-final. But would winning a quarter-final and losing a semi-final be better than a Grand Slam or winning a series in New Zealand?

This 2022-23 season has already been called a World Cup season, or a World Cup year. It’s neither. Fortunately, there is another break next summer before the World Cup, which takes place at the start of the 2023-24 season.

For clubs, players, officials and volunteers at the 50 clubs kicking off the men’s All-Ireland League this weekend, the concerns are far more pressing and the World Cup is far, far away.

It is arguably the most interesting season for the provinces for some time too, with the United Rugby Championship now more competitive than ever given the rise of the South African teams, and ditto the latter’s debut in the European competitions, not to mention the return of Saracens. in the Champions Cup.

Then there’s the November Tests, which will kick off with a meeting between the world’s number one-ranked side and the reigning world champions on November 5, when Aviva Stadium will hopefully come alive a bit. .

This is followed by home games against Fiji and Australia, before a Six Nations in which Ireland host defending Grand Slam champions France on February 11 and England in the final match of the final round on February 18. March at 5 p.m.

For all Ireland’s success since 2009, the last time an Irish team were crowned champions in Dublin was against England in 1985, Mick Kiernan’s drop goal and all that. So imagine if Ireland went for the title against England in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day weekend, in what is likely to be Johnny Sexton’s Six Nations swan song? Indeed, the prospect of the Challenge Cup and Champions Cup finals taking place at the Aviva Stadium on May 19 and 20 is also a huge carrot for Sexton, Leinster and the Irish provinces. There is a lot to look forward to in this 2022-23 season.

Athletes have long insisted that the key to success is to live in the moment, and maybe we should start heeding that advice. If you’re too obsessed with the future, you risk missing out on the present.

PS: My friend and press colleague Ruaidhrí O’Connor is running the Dublin Marathon on October 30 in honor of his son Malachy, who died aged 11 weeks in April this year, and in aid of Crumlin Children’s Hospital, in thanks for caring for their son, himself and Siobhán.

Ruaidhri O’Connor raises money for the Crumlin Children’s Health Foundation (

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