After Irelands dismal result in the Six Nations it can now be said without a doubt that Irelands Golden Generation of rugby stars have definitely underachieved on the international stage.
Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Gordon Darcy, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, John Hayes, and all the rest of the big names that have won caps for Ireland in the last ten years or so will go down in the annals of Irish rugby as one of the greatest collection of players ever to don the green jersey. The heroics performed, at their respective clubs has ensured that Leinster and Munster are feared across the rugby playing nations of Europe. Heineken cups and Celtic league titles have been brought home to Ireland with thanks to their endeavours. But at an international level they have undoubtedly failed to live up to their potential.
Ok they have won four Triple Crowns since 2004 and the Holy Grail of rugby the 2009 Grand Slam but considering that Wales have won four Championships and three Grand Slams in the same length of time really puts it in to perspective. The question that has to be asked is how a collection of players who have repeatedly been so successful over the relative same group of players at club suddenly come a cropper at International level. Welsh club rugby cannot touch the Irish game at club level yet this same group of players can go out and perform heroics in the red jersey repeatedly. What is it that has left its mark on the Irish psyche that whenever we get into a position that looks as if we are about to push through and dominate a tournament we suddenly fall apart. It cannot just be bad luck the amount of times they have come close to winning championships only to fall apart against lesser teams who have gleefully punished our team while up and down the country grown men and women have sobbed into their pints.
What I am trying to get to is that this has been a wasted opportunity and the blame cannot solely lie at the feet of the players. Was it the coach’s fault? Eddie O’Sullivan failed to win the championship but was such a widely respected coach that at one stage he had been touted for the Lions job. Declan Kidney took over the reins and immediately brought about our second only Grand Slam in 2009 and apart from a win against Australia in 2011 did little else. The excuse that has done the rounds for years was that Ireland had a small pool of players and that it was very hard to compete against bigger nations with larger pools of players. Yet for the last two years running Wales have emerged victorious as champions with a much smaller rugby population.
According to the IRB Annual Review 2012 Wales have a rugby playing population of 66,114 while Ireland has 155,244. Yet even hampered by a smaller playing pool the Welsh RFU have still managed to be extremely successful. If you add in the World Cup record to the Six Nations exploits then the stark reality of the Irish short comings comes more in to view.
Questions that have been brought sharply into focus - especially after this year’s tournament- regarding player development, management, strength, fitness and conditioning will have to be looked at more closely. The harsh reality is that great players such as Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll will be retiring from international rugby with just one championship medal and that is such a waste. We will wait a long time to see their like again and anybody who has not seen them play in the flesh has no idea of what they have missed out. I was in Cardiff that night we won the Grand Slam and through a drunken haze I remember saying to my wife that if Ireland were to never win it again I was happy at least to see this one. Unfortunately I did not for one second think that they would fail to push on and reach those heights again.