It was a televised discussion over a decade ago and Ronnie Whelan was asked about ‘The Liverpool Way’. Rather than indulge his interviewer with tales of mystical mornings in Melwood, Ronnie exclaimed “there was no ‘Liverpool Way’, just great players.” The quote never got the legs it deserved in my eyes, I thought it was hilarious.
This blog has for most of its time railed against the term ‘Golden Generation’. Brief research (on Wikipedia) was sufficient to confirm my suspicions. The phrase was first used about the Portuguese teams that won back to back World Youth Championships in football and has since entered the lexicon in much the same way that ‘Dream Team’ did after the 1992 Olympics.
The Dream Team weren’t pushed in any of their games during 1992 so didn’t have to dig deep in a match for the ages but instead indulge their opposition in photo opportunities in the manner of an Olympian Harlem Globetrotters. What captured the imagination was all-timers Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan on the same team. Go America!
Ireland have been driven to heights by Brian O’Driscoll during his career, particularly when winning the Grand Slam and beating France in Paris. Other players have had notable careers at the same time but it is only O’Driscoll who I would consider for my all time team. Basically, there isn’t a golden generation, there are guys about the same age as Brian O’Driscoll who came to prominence at a time when the game in Ireland developed professionally.
Why the doggedness on this point? It’s not to belittle anyone’s contribution or to suggest that it was all solely O’Driscoll. The thrust of this piece is that Ireland’s structures since the inception of professionalism are good, particularly at provincial level, and have produced a level of competition that has benefitted Irish professional rugby. However, the idea that it is harder to get off the Irish team rather than on it still lingers and has to change.
The idea that the international game is so different to the Heineken Cup is another thing this blog has trouble believing. Yes, the top level of international rugby is the highest there is but the Heineken Cup offers a quality of rugby that prepares players for that better than anything that has gone before. This is achieved in numerous ways: foremost is the fact that the players get accustomed to big match atmosphere and pressure situations against top quality opposition. One of the results of winning against top class opposition at club level is that there is less mystique and less to fear about the same opposition when the wear their national jersies.
I was surprised by two quotes from Il Dece in the aftermath of the win against Argentina.
“We’ll assemble again at Christmas. I’ll fight, no I won’t fight, but I’ll try and get whatever time we can together. It’s a new squad,”
“When you’re in school, you’re used to having different squads all the time, year on year, but to have so many . . . Like, somebody just counted out that of the 32 we had in training this week, we had 17 new guys compared to the World Cup. That’s a monumental turnover. If you look the bench had three one-cappers.”
The thing that gets me in both quotes is that he is almost taken by surprise by the training arrangements, the structure of the season and the composition of his squad. You know, the one that he picks. It’s not like teams are forced upon him by the Big Five from days gone by. How can you be surprised about having players with so little experience when we cling to some players when they’re passed their best-by date?
This is not a particularly insightful remark but what was to be gained by putting on Donncha O’Callaghan ahead of Iain Henderson at the weekend? At what stage will Ronan O’Gara be jettisoned? When will he stopped being judged on being Chief Ligind and when will he be selected on his current performances in relation to his peers? The argument is that O’Gara is still a proven match winner and brings a cold blooded temperament off the bench due to all the experience gained throughout his career. It’s tough to argue with that point but it’s also hard to accurately guage the intangibles offered by experience.
You cannot have discretion over the composition of the squad for a number of years and then talk about a lack of experience as though it were fated. If players are to develop experience then they must be selected. Competition for places is vital. It is no longer the case that Ireland does not have a sufficient number of players capable of competing at international level. There is the exceptional case of O’Driscoll and his retirement is approaching. After him, all players are replaceable.
Despite the callow look of the team to face Argentina, the Mole was happy with the line up and the timing of it in the season. In form players had been picked in position and our back line had plenty of gas. I did think we’d win, but only by 4-6 points. I was delighted by the performance, as much because it has become easy to forget how enjoyable it is watching an Irish team play good rugby. The Heineken Cup may have captured the imagination but there is still nothing like shouting at the TV during an Irish match to remind you of the national side’s prominence.
My current view of the national team’s season is based on a single aim: beat France. Over the last ten years in the 6 Nations, Ireland has won 7 out of 10 against England. England has won 7 out of 10 against France and France have won 7 out of 10 against Ireland. For whatever reason, it is the French match that stops Ireland feeling like winners. None of the other teams hold a fear for us but France is a bogey side. With that aim in mind, the French match becomes the game when the best team is selected and the rest of the competition should be used to find that balance.
This isn’t at all to say that games should be sacrificed; on the contrary, players in form should be selected to start in order to foster the edge developed by internal competition and the cohesiveness allowed by familiarity. Does that sound contradictory? What I’m getting towards is a situation where, for example, Luke Marshall is picked to start against Italy so that if he’s required against England in Twickenham then it’s not his first game at international level. I’d particularly be in favour of summer tours being used for the same purpose. I think it is easier to make a debut away from home in a tour environment when there is less unusual attention from those close to you.
Kidney himself used this tactic in his first Six Nations when making four changes for the game against Scotland. When making that selection, it seemed that he was tinkering with the bank of experience built by Eddie O’Sullivan. In the first year of his deal, he was prepared to take risks. Now, in order to try and prolong his tenure, he should do so again.