- 1 Oct 07, 05:57 PM
It hasn’t quite matched the national trauma induced by Roy Keane’s departure from Saipan five years ago but Ireland rugby team’s hapless efforts in France have gripped the Emerald Isle over the past three weeks.
Two months ago, a semi-final place in this World Cup was being spoken about as the minimum acceptable requirement for this so-called Golden Generation of Irish players.
Three weeks and four poor displays should have been ample time to reach some sort of national consensus on what precisely went wrong.
But as Eddie O’Sullivan, his backroom men and the Irish players get ready to dodge the metaphorical rotten tomatoes which are being stacked up for them, the reality is that the country is still in the dark as to what caused the flop.
For this observer, the most worrying moment in the World Cup came after the dire display against Georgia when O’Sullivan confessed to not knowing what was going wrong with his squad.
It hardly smacked of a reassuring hand on the helm and at that point, a real sense of foreboding began to creep in about the team’s prospects of making the last eight.
The ship was already taking on water and if the coach didn’t know how to plug the holes, a sinking seemed inevitable. So it proved on Sunday.
Despite their shrugged shoulders, the players must have more than a few thoughts on why the team and the management failed so abjectly.
So far, no player has been prepared to put their head above the parapet beyond stating the blindingly obvious that the team “didn’t play well”.
Apart from one week off in July, the Irish squad were together from late June until now although they were allowed to return home to their loved ones on several weekends.
The staleness and lack of snap exhibited itself most sharply in the pack with the Irish forwards being pushed backwards, time and time again, in each of the four games.
So much was expected of Paul O’Connell but he had an awful tournament and the nagging worry is that, like many of his forward colleagues, his best days may be behind him.
O’Sullivan’s bizarre decision not to start Neil Best in any of the four games didn’t help the Irish and the three weeks were littered with baffling selections calls by the coach – notably leaving Geordan Murphy out of the 22 for the France match.
Emboldened by the IRFU’s incredible decision to grant him a four-year contract extension in August, O’Sullivan has insisted that he expects to remain on in the job.
On the face of it, O’Sullivan is on shaky ground after his team’s dismal showing and all logic suggests that his six-year tenure should be ended just as Gareth Jenkins paid the price for Wales’ World Cup failure.
In addition, O’Sullivan has virtually no supporters in the influential Irish rugby media after the team’s failure and as Mick McCarthy will testify, it’s usually impossible to hang on when almost all the press guns are being fired in your direction.
But IRFU politics could save O’Sullivan given that it would represent an embarrassing admission of bad judgement by the chief blazers if they sacked the coach.
That’s not to mention the cash the IRFU would have to fork out to pay off a departing O’Sullivan.
The lack of obvious domestic replacements also could help to save O’Sullivan with Connacht coach Michael Bradley surely needing more experience before stepping into the job and Munster’s Declan Kidney unlikely to be on the IRFU’s radar.
But the IRFU may deem that suitable candidates are simply not available at this stage and give O’Sullivan a stay of execution at least until next year’s Six Nations.
John Haughey is a journalist at BBC Sport in Belfast.