- 22 Sep 07, 08:39 PM
Paris - What hope an Irish miracle? The faces of the players as they wandered through the interview area in the bowels of the Stade de France on Friday told a story.
For them, the French match was THE one. Defeat has all but condemned them to an early exit, and don’t they know it.
A pall of gloom hangs over the squad, despite the defiant mutterings of the captain and coach. Barring an astonishing turn of events next Sunday, the golden generation have missed the boat.
In retrospect we saw it coming. Talk of a “backs to the wall” performance, revelling in the underdog tag, and a camp “galvanised ” by criticism may just have blurred the grim facts.
This Ireland side is back-pedalling. In fact it seems to have been in reverse gear since Vincent Clerc scuttled through to spoil the party at Croke Park in the Six Nations.
It’s often said that a good side don’t become a bad one overnight. Ireland have managed it in a handful of months.
So what has happened? First the on-field stuff….
The pack has lost its bite. Never an eight to instil fear in terms of sheer physical presence, they always made up for it with commitment, resolution and no little skill. They were rarely bullied, usually disciplined, and efficient at the set-piece. O’Connell and O’Callaghan at their peak are among the best line-out operators in the world.
And where do you start with the backs? So often the conductor of the Irish orchestra, Ronan O’Gara’s been missing his notes at every turn. Gone are the persistent pinpoint punts that lift his men. Gone is the swagger that signals his game is ticking. Gone is the ability to unleash his midfield.
Aaah the midfield. The dream ticket, the perfect pair, the scourge of Six Nations past.
Where are you Brian O’Driscoll? Where are the devilish angles, the dynamite breaks, the low-slung magic? Neither he nor Gordon D’Arcy is hitting the line with any pace, or from any depth.
Radio 5 Live’s summariser Hugo MacNeill had his head in his hands last night during our commentary. Time after time he stressed that the lack of invention and fluency stemmed from three-quarters aligned in an ugly, flat formation. These are fundamentals.
And so to the off-field shenanigans. Even from this close range, seeing the squad on a daily basis, it’s impossible to decipher fact from fiction.
The over-worked Rumour Mill has players storming out, key men troubled by complicated non-rugby related issues, and simmering frustration at the isolated team base in Bordeaux.
There are more, but the stories are tall, and some of them have grown wings and flown off into the land of pure fantasy. What is abundantly clear is that the unsettled nature of the party is affecting performance. The bad karma off the pitch is finding its way onto it. Eddie O’Sullivan seems powerless to do anything about it.
There’s a warbling sound close by. I think I can make out the fat lady warming up.
PS: In stark contrast to Ireland’s tortured progress, I was lucky enough to see Tonga’s magnificent effort against the Springboks in Lens.
To see their brand of adventurous, ambitious rugby was a revelation, and but for a very dubious ruling over a forward pass, things just might have been different. We might have been discussing the biggest upset in World Cup history. England are in for a scrap next Friday.
Alastair Eykyn is a Radio 5 live reporter specialising in rugby union, tennis and hockey. He is covering Ireland at the World Cup and you can see 5 live's full broadcast schedule here.