Negative victories and positive defeats: The difference between Ireland’s ’07 and present World Cup hopes

18 Aug

Sean Farrell

Rugby Correspondent

Now this is exciting! The past two weeks have seen Declan Kidney pick international teams for tricky away fixtures. The goal – despite Kidney’s protests – was to get those finely tuned motors up and running. A slow and sure warm up before we click into gear on these, the last two laps of our test run before New Zealand.

First up was the damp squib of a game against Scotland, do we expect anything more from a trip to Edinburgh? Much more heartening was last weekend’s jaunt to Bordeaux. Another loss, yes, but the performance was only a decent set-piece away from a win deep in French rugby country.

Yet, the admirable display did more than add impetus to the warm up series or give hope for the future. It helped to banish some aspects of our last trip to Stade Chaban Delmas (cue dramatic score from movie thriller – dun DUN dun) in 2007.

The warm up to that French debacle saw us wander into the lion’s den (good Christians that we are.) It was a hot and heavy midweek match in Bayonne, the Southwest outfit at that time were languishing in the second tier of France’s domestic competition and so, seemingly without fear of reproach, set about systematically lifting our ponderous World Cup bid off the railway tracks.

Reports differ on which carriage was targeted first, what is beyond doubt is that our engine, Brian O’Driscoll, was mercilessly targeted Super 8 style by substitute Mikeana Tewhata. The Kiwi played the part of the disgruntled truck driver four years before JJ Abrams unleashed his blockbuster on the masses.

Denis Hickie, who touched down three times as Ireland limped to a 42-6 win, could scarcely believe his eyes: “I thought those sort of games were a thing of the past.” The winger told the Belfast Telegraph at the time, “Brian got a blatant punch in the face from a guy he wasn’t even looking at which is pretty cowardly, but what can you do?”

Little over a week later, Italy came across to Belfast to wish us well in our going away party. They swamped in bold as brass, ate all the cake and swilled the free booze. They ruined the whole Friday night and made me do something I never did before or since during an Irish match, I switched off early.

It was as bad as Ireland have played in the modern era, on a par with the narrow win over Georgia just three weeks later. Like the 14-10 win by the Garonne, the match by the Lagan went down to the wire too.

Matteo Pratichetti’s converted try perilously close to the final whistle shot Italy into a 20 -16 lead. It was too late to cancel the flight to Bordeaux, I sighed and did what any self-respecting Irishman does when faced with crushing disappointment: grabbed my coat and headed to the pub.

By the time I looked both ways, crossed the road and moped through the door 60 meters from my own threshold, Donal the barman seemed in philosophic mood: “Terrible weren’t they” he said in an incomprehensibly upbeat mood. ‘Yeah, awful’ I lamented ‘first loss to Italy since…’ As he set me straight, Donal’s eyebrows raised higher than the pitch of his voice “No. They won. O’Gara scored a try!”

Disbelieving, I settled down to analyse the highlights before my pint of stout settled, ROG had done it again. Nowadays the ageing fly-half is forced to compete for his place but it’s not long since he was one of the three reliable totems which Ireland could always pin their hopes on.

This occasion, though, was not an example of his enduring class but more a big jammy stroke of luck. The talisman broke onto a questionable pass from Andrew Trimble and then grounded the score in less than convincing fashion. Long story short: Ireland won, just as they did in Bayonne; happy days, nothing to see here. Let’s just look forward to the World Cup, it’ll be alright on the night…

We hoped for the best but got more of the same. A shoddy display and a win against mighty Namibia led to us to being well and truly found out by Georgia who spent the dying minutes camped on our line and eventually trundled over only to be held up by Denis Leamy. Nobody was being fooled by the results anymore.

Ireland went on to Paris to be outclassed by the hosts and (needing a massive win to qualify) lost again to our favourite South Americans, who revelled in the kick and defend laden game-pattern of the day.

Results are not everything, far from it. The win in Bayonne was a physical pummelling, the narrow escape in Ravenhill a disaster. Compare these games to recent weeks when Kidney has sent understrength teams to hothouse atmospheres and got within inches of a win on both occasions.

The performances are there and the mood is good, that’s what has supporters excited. Because on Saturday we will see a green XV close to the one Kidney would choose to face Australia on September 17th.

The exception is Felix Jones, however much he merits a starting place, the Munster fullback still has a way to go to gain Kidney’s trust in a match of major stature. Elsewhere, the pack is in place – only Stephen Ferris could muscle in there. The half backs are building an understanding, Gordon D’Arcy is back in midfield and the back three is extremely dangerous despite the absence of Tommy Bowe who, once fit, should walk back into the right wing position.

All that said; the rallying cry from the sponsors of these warm up games must be heard. The build-up starts here and our boys in green must put more than half a game together against both France and England. Going into the World Cup under the radar is all well and good, but going on the back of four defeats could make for an impossible climb.

From Bayonne to the brink of something special, the prospect of victory, the chance of defeat; I guess that’s what makes it all so exciting.

Ireland (v France): F Jones, A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O’Leary; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (capt); S O’Brien, D Wallace, J Heaslip Replacements: J Flannery, T Court, M McCarthy, S Ferris, E Reddan, R O’Gara, L Fitzgerald.

Ireland XV (v Connacht) G Murphy; J Murphy, D Cave, I Keatley, F McFadden; P Wallace, I Boss; T Buckley, S Cronin, J Hayes;; M O’Driscoll, L Cullen; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, D Leamy. Replacements: D Varley, M Horan, D Ryan, N Ronan, C Murray, D Hurley, I Whitten

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