The Gain Line: Long cloud hangs over Ireland
11:27, 26 Jun 2012
Ireland's summer tours make no sense as long as financial reasons are at the root of why they take place.....
There was a moment during the third test between New Zealand and Ireland that summed up the gruesomeness of the clash. When Hosea Gear ran over Keith Earls and almost knocked him out in the process, the tour’s wisdom was not so much called into question as left open to ridicule. And, with financial results the reason why tours such as this one take place, more routs can be expected.
There were always going to be key areas where Ireland would be brutally exposed. That much was obvious and the wonder is it didn’t happen sooner. Often there is one result on a tour such as this that proves an anomaly. The third result may have been dismally harsh on the side but it was always liable to happen at the end of a gruelling season and without the service of a number of important players.
Declan Kidney said there is some value in the experience but it is hard to see what he is talking about. If anything, all the tour did was to painfully emphasis what we already knew: There are a lack of options in the front row; there is no outstanding, natural number seven available to Kidney; the lack of options at centre are startling; and, physically and technically, Ireland are light years behind the world champions.
Of course, it was not the first time Ireland have made a trip to one of the Southern Hemisphere giants and left in tatters. In fact, over the last decade and going back to the turn of the century, they have played 16 end-of-season games (this number excludes Japan, Tonga and Samoa) against first-tier nations and lost all 16.
There was an interesting argument on Twitter in its aftermath about how the defeat should be framed. Some of those involved say there is blatant media bias toward the rugby side, which carried the inference that commercial concerns were at its root. It was felt, in particular, that there is more “reporting” than hard-hitting analysis when it comes to rugby and that far more excuses are offered to defend defeats such as the one suffered in Hamilton than are offered when Ireland lose 4-0 to Spain, for example.
Blame for the humiliation is, in this instance, not so easily apportioned. The mitigating factors have to be considered. For one thing, the tour came at the end of a 51-week season. Meanwhile, the Super 15 began in February and there are three more rounds to go before the finals series. New Zealand are at a different stage in their fitness and conditioning. In a purely playing sense, the tour was pointless. In fact, it was more than pointless – it was downright dangerous.
The sheer physical size of the players now is devastating for countries such as Ireland whose first sport is not rugby. Despite playing in the same positions, Gear is two stone heavier than Earls. If it was boxing, Paddy Wallace would not be allowed in the same ring as Sonny Bill Williams. The All Black centre is four stone heavier than the Ulster man and there were physical mismatches all over the field. And one only has to look at Wales as an example of the trend for cultivating powerhouse, speedy backs.
Where the players to take over from Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy are to be found is the next question. The same problems in relation to replacing players and an outmoded system confront English football, which is now setting its reactionary sights on the number of foreigners in the Premier League. In fairness, Germany faced a similar quandary following a dismal Euro 2000 campaign when a tired, immobile and technically inferior group of players failed, with England, to qualify from the group. The German FA revamped their entire structures and implemented the changes that have directly resulted in a German team that is one of the most vibrant and exciting to watch in world football.
One of those changes was to ensure that all clubs had a certain number of home-grown players in each squad. At this tournament, Joachim Low was able to replace his entire forward line for the quarter-final clash against Greece and the team was barely weakened. Those options were simply not available 12 years ago and they have not come along now by fluke. That’s not to say there are any easy answers. There are no glaringly obvious options for Ireland in the front row or at number seven so hence the IRFU’s decision to tweak their policy on the recruitment by provinces of foreign players. The balance between maintaining the strength of the provinces’ European Cup performances and the reinvigoration of the international side is delicate but the motivation behind the move is clear.
International rugby, though, in a wider context, faces a problem. It operates in a much shallower pool which means that Ireland have to send teams to the Southern Hemisphere to ensure return revenue from the visits of those sides. The demands on the players from countries with fewer options to choose from are simply not sustainable. Sean O’Brien, whose game is an explosive mix of power, pace and aggression, will now likely be out of action for four months as a result of a hip injury that flared up in New Zealand. It is also difficult to understand what good it does O’Driscoll to play in these tours when surely a recuperative summer period would be far more beneficial.
It was fascinating to hear New Zealand players talk about “recovering” from the previous week’s test, which they narrowly won after a late Dan Carter drop-goal. It was disheartening too; Ireland have often talked of upping their game after close, dogged slogs with second- or third-tier nations. Sadly, that is what we are on summer tours to the major rugby-playing nations. And that won’t change any time soon if financial motivations are at their root.
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