IT’S QUITE TIMELY that there has been a bit of reminiscing this week about Ireland’s famous win over England at Croke Park.
After all, come Saturday the current Irish team could do with the spirit of 2007 – namely big lumps of men blubbing uncontrollably at the prospect of smiting Saxons.
RTÉ’s documentary about that momentous day was called ‘No Words Needed’, which is a politer way of saying ‘Lads, We Better Beat These B*****ds Today’. Do we need that attitude on Saturday, with Eddie Jones bringing his all-conquering team to Dublin with a Grand Slam and world record of consecutive test wins within their grasp?
We shouldn’t, but we might.
Of course, there should be enough motivation from within. Ireland want to finish in the top three of the Six Nations and secure a comfy World Cup seeding. They want to make good on the promise of Chicago last November. And with words like ‘over-hyped’, ‘predictable’ and ‘blunt’ in vogue this week, there is ample opportunity for a display of we-showed-them indignation.
But still. This is England, on the brink of a Grand Slam. Not them. Not here.
Funnily enough, the significance of Croke Park in 2007 was to fold up and put away for good the idea that Irish-English rivalry should have bitterness at its core. After that game, any malice towards the English was finally placed in a museum of the mind, to be looked at with curiosity on occasion, from behind glass and at a safe distance. Decommissioned, if you will.
Ironically, Ireland v England in rugby is now pretty much the only outlet for any residual anti-English feeling, safe from the darker corners of knuckle-dragging Republicanism.
We don’t play them often enough to justify rivalry in international soccer. The last time the sides met, a 0-0 draw at the Aviva Stadium in June 2015, they displayed as much ferocity and bile as two fluffy kittens cavorting with a ball of wool.
We have long shared many key cultural touchstones: Premier League football; Costa coffee; Ant ‘n’ Dec.
And although they disappointed us with Brexit, that’s mainly because it’s like our best mate in the gang is moving to another school and we’ve suddenly realised we don’t have that much in common with the rest.
So the annual meeting in the Six Nations remains the only publicly acceptable forum for displaying resentment towards the English. And although that resentment is mild and safe and really quite jokey now, it’s still there. It hasn’t gone away, you know.
And how could it, when you remember how most of us were educated? History class was a list of heroic Gaels and villainous Brits, badly organised rebellions and brutal suppressions, taught under the sideways gaze of Padraig Pearse from the Proclamation pinned to the wall. Oppression Studies might have been a better name, the purpose of which was so that WE WOULD NEVER FORGET.
Considering all that, merely wanting to put Dylan Hartley on his backside once a year is progress indeed.
But it remains slightly depressing to want to beat England on Saturday, more than if it were France or Wales going for a Grand Slam, just because it is England. Particularly because Joe Schmidt’s brand of rugby was meant to shift Ireland from a dependence on our not inconsiderable emotional baggage into a sleek, merciless winning machine.
Schmidt was an English teacher once, but his coaching approach is all science and engineering. Component parts are fitted together and precision programmed. Input, execution, outcome. Which is fine until you can’t throw the ball straight into the line out. Ireland lost five in total off their own throw against Scotland and Wales, bringing Schmidt’s killing machine to a hissing, spluttering halt.
Ireland have won 8 of the 16 games they have played since the 2015 World Cup. They have become a 50% team, pretty much like the days when they played from the heart more than the instruction manual.
This drop off from the first two years of Schmidt’s reign – in which he won 20 of 27 tests – has coincided with the retirement of Paul O’Connell. Everyone knew he would be irreplaceable as an on-field leader, but could it be that his ability to concoct just the right potion of psychic energy within an Irish dressing room, the right mix of focus and frenzy — the ‘fear of God’ of 2007 — is what is most missing?
Ireland need a why to win as well as a how; and although we’re best of pals these days, it still means a lot to Irish people to beat England. That doesn’t mean dressing room speeches about the dead generations or anything, but even elite, process-driven sportspeople need a cause – just as long as it’s not The Cause.
Master of the press conference barb, Eddie Jones put us in our place last weekend. “They are beaten, they are out of the tournament, they love spoiling parties,” he said in anticipation of Saturday. “And the party they love to spoil the most is the England party.”
Sigh. Fine then. No words needed, I guess.
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