BE PART OF THE TEAM

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 10°C Sunday 29 November 2020
Advertisement

Are Ireland ‘soft’? Do they still belong in the world's elite? Saturday will tell us

Andy Farrell has the easiest team-talk of his career ahead of him at Twickenham. He just needs to remind his players of Rassie Erasmus’ damning words.

Irish players react to February's defeat to England.
Irish players react to February's defeat to England.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Updated Nov 19th 2020, 2:59 PM

LAS VEGAS IS a sordid, tawdry town, home to cheap suits, blinding lights and in February 1989, the greatest line in the history of sports broadcasting.

As a sceptical American audience listened to Frank Bruno’s attempt to convince the world he had the tools to defeat Mike Tyson, HBO’s boxing commentator, Jim Lampley delivered a verbal assault, days before Iron Mike’s physical follow up.

“Bruno has the body of a Greek God ….. and the chin of a poet laureate,” Lampley announced live on air, the putdown prior to the knockdown. As it happened, Bruno fought the fight of his life, winning respect if not the match, as the violence came to an end in the fifth. “At least now people can see I’m not soft,” the Englishman said afterwards. The emotional bruises took longer to heal than the physical ones.

From Las Vegas ’89 we turn our eyes to Twickenham this weekend and while the setting will be quieter, the stakes lower, the theme of dented pride has nonetheless crossed both sporting and geographic borders.

“This lot (Wales) are not soft like Ireland,” Rassie Erasmus was heard to say in the recent documentary about the Springboks’ successful World Cup. It’s the rugby equivalent of the slur Bruno had to listen to in a tacky hotel press room 31 years ago.

Here is another harsh assessment, this one delivered by Sean O’Brien in his recent interview with The42. “In the opening game of the 2019 Six Nations championship England absolutely bullied us. That shouldn’t happen, not when it is Ireland v England.”

But it did happen and worse still, we have seen repeat showings since – in the World Cup warm-up last year and then in February’s Six Nations clash at Twickenham.

a-view-of-the-score-after-the-game A view of the scoreboard after last year's World Cup warm-up game. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Saturday, accordingly, takes on a weighty significance, not just in terms of offering a group of players the chance to answer Erasmus’ insult but also to prove they still belong among the elite.

Many doubt they do. After a four-year residency in that company from 2014 through to 2018, winning Six Nations titles in three of those seasons, beating New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and England in the other years, their status has been downgraded.

If you can’t beat them, you can’t join them. And since November 2018, Ireland haven’t done it against the elite.

Yes, there have been three wins over Scotland but context is required; Scotland haven’t finished higher than third in the Six Nations championship and have failed to make it out of their pool in two of the last three World Cups.

Never mind, you can point to four Irish victories out of their last five games against Wales but in the one that mattered most, the 2019 Six Nations decider, Wales had it wrapped up by half-time.

More to the point, the difference between Warren Gatland’s Wales and Wayne Pivac’s version (seven games played, six lost) is similar to the contrasting value of getting a result over Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and David Moyes’ subsequent model.

They and France have flipped. Whereas a win over Fabien Galthie’s 2020 France is significant; getting one over Jacqus Brunel’s 2019 team was a bit like beating Liverpool in Brendan Rodgers’ final season before Jurgen Klopp came in. Sure enough, Ireland won the 2019 encounter but lost out a month ago, after France rediscovered how to be good.

arthur-retiere-celebrates-with-his-team-after-the-game French players celebrate their win over Ireland last month. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Now thoughts turn to England, the team that triggered this downturn in February 2019, when they won the physical battle. They did so again last August – and again in February. Each time, Ireland couldn’t come up with an answer.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Farrell may remind them of this between now and kick-off. If his tactics sheet contained just three words – Erasmus’ claim that ‘Ireland are soft’ – you’d imagine that should be enough.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

Again, the mind drifts back to a press conference room, this one in Melbourne in June 2018. Ireland had lost the first test of a three-game series to Australia, an excusable defeat at the end of a lengthy season – but not as far as Farrell was concerned. “Tiredness doesn’t come into it,” he animatedly said. “So, I really want to see what the famous old Irish ticker is made of this weekend.”

He’ll want to see more than mere heart this Saturday. Having played well in patches of their big games in 2018 and 2019, it’s high time this side reminded everyone of their ability to put together an 80-minute performance.

It can happen. England, after the Barbarians fiasco, have hardly had a taxing lead-in – Italy away, Georgia at home, whereas Farrell’s Ireland have been properly road-tested,  providing them with a better chance than people are prepared to admit.

If they’re to produce an upset, though, then they need to break even in the collisions and sort out the defensive issues that have seen them concede 113 points from their last three meetings against the English and 35 on last month’s trip to Paris.

What helps is the ballsy team selection. Opting for Quinn Roux rather than an undercooked Iain Henderson is untypical of modern-day Irish coaches, where the unheralded form player gets the nod over the one with a reputation.

quinn-roux Quinn Roux's selection ahead of Henderson is justified. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Right across the pitch, there are guys with points to prove; eight of the starting XV having 13 caps or fewer to their name; old-timers like Pete O’Mahony and Keith Earls afforded the opportunity to remind their coach they have an international future not just a past.

Most intriguingly of all, for the first time since what seems like the Ice Age, we will see an Irish half-back pairing minus the names Sexton and Murray for a big Test, something the public has been crying out for since the last World Cup, Sexton being 35, Murray 31.

Well, if it goes badly for Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne on Saturday then the players who are supposedly over the hill will be called back up it quicker than the Grand Old Duke of York issued his orders to his 10’000 men.

But if it goes right, if there is an unexpected Irish victory, there’ll be a chance to also win a tournament, something that may carry more meaning in years to come than it does now.  

Irrespective of the fact the Autumn Nations Cup has not caught the public’s imagination yet, you have to remember this is often the way with new competitions. Few now recall that a quarter of the teams in the inaugural Heineken Cup were from Romania and Italy – but it doesn’t stop Toulouse asking tailors to stitch a fourth star onto their jerseys.

Nor do too many Uruguayans mention that the first FIFA World Cup, which they won, contained just four European sides. Ninety years on, they remain one of only eight countries to have lifted that trophy.

Of course we’re not suggesting the Autumn Nations Cup will grow anywhere near as big as that – it may never even obtain the prestige of the Heineken Cup – but when you have a history of just 14 outright tournament wins from 135 entries (to Home/Five/Six Nations and World Cups), you can’t afford to be snobby about any silverware.

Like it or not the Nations Cup is here to stay. It will get bigger. New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will sign up in the post Covid world. It’ll be a prize worth something then; it remains one worth scrapping for now.

So is something else – the chance to win some respect, not just from England but also Erasmus.

First published today at 14.30

About the author:

Garry Doyle

Read next:

COMMENTS (27)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel