- Lifestyle & Sports
- 26 Feb 16
Ireland’s reign as European champions is almost certainly over after two weeks of crushing agony on the battlefield. But is the outlook really all that bad?
And so, the good times are over.
Ireland are not traditionally bred to look down on the rest of the Six Nations from atop the summit, and after two years of glorious dominance, the law of gravity has taken its inevitable toll. It’s the way love goes: spellbinding at the time, might even last a few years, but ultimately delusional, a mirage.
In truth, while dejection is an understandable reaction to the opening two weekends’ combat, the doom’n’gloom has been wildly overstated, and knee-jerk reactions of the ‘Schmidt Must Go’ variety deserve nothing but scorn. The margins are tiny: two games thus far, one drawn, the other lost by a point. In Paris too, where 40-0 eviscerations used to be more or less the norm. You could view it as a measure of how far we’ve come: there was a time when leading Les Bleus in their own backyard for an hour before succumbing by a nose-hair would have been greeted as a feat of great heroism.
You may feel I am overdoing the Glass Half Full psychology – but these things are rarely as black-and-white as they appear, in a world where we judge every match according to its outcome. It’s only three years since we imploded in what turned out to be Declan Kidney’s final campaign, only avoiding the Wooden Spoon on points-differential. The Golden Generation was aging before our eyes, and the talk was of the End of an Era. Twelve months later, we were dancing around the Stade de France as champions. The leadership void left by Messrs O’Driscoll and O’Connell may not be easily filled overnight, but we’ve a pretty healthy panel, have had horrendous misfortune this season with injuries, continue to be very dogged in defense (the 43-point World Cup meltdown against Argentina notwithstanding) and have hardly become fit for the knacker’s yard overnight.
Obviously we will need a ridiculously fortunate sequence of events to hold onto the Championship, but with games against Italy and Scotland to come, as well as an England side which limped out of its own World Cup in the first round only four months ago, it isn’t exactly insane to speculate that things may look much brighter in a few weeks’ time.
The most obviously glaring problem is our limited try-scoring potency. The latter was evident even last year, when our phenomenal defensive qualities and Johnny Sexton’s accuracy with the boot served to camouflage slightly anaemic tendencies in attack. On Saturday, these became glaringly unmissable. A first half of almost total territorial dominance ought to have yielded a double-figure lead, but turning chances into tries seems an uphill struggle, and for as long as your scoring is measured in threes rather than fives and sevens, you will have grave trouble putting teams away. Sure enough, a preposterously mediocre French team, which had let the entire first hour pass it by, suddenly roused from its slumbers, knowing that all they needed was one score. Ireland’s legs had gone, and the inevitable happened.
It was also a weekend of giant significance in the Premiership, where the four title contenders went head to head. Leicester’s agonizing stoppage-time defeat at Arsenal offered the first hint that they may be about to hit that invisible barrier known to marathon runners as ‘the Wall’, where physical and mental exhaustion begin to combine. This astonishing team has defied almost every sacred principle of modern football (‘you need a 20-man squad’, ‘it’s all about possession’, ‘you get what you pay for’) in the course of its unforgettable march to the brink of glory, and we have long since passed the point where writing off their title chances would be idiotic.
Still, one wonders whether their counter-attacking m.o. may take a toll on a side which has, largely, featured the same line-up week-in and week-out all season long. The norm for title-contending teams these days is to hog possession, with a figure somewhere in the region of 55-60%. Leicester are a stark exception, having averaged an astonishingly low 41% possession while somehow winning fifteen games and losing three. This obviously entails not having the ball much of the time, and that surely has to sap their stamina – though there is no visible evidence of this having happened yet.
As if my weekend hadn’t been catastrophic enough, Man City outwitted themselves again by succumbing 2-1 to a late sucker-punch at home to Spurs. It is always extremely aggravating when the outcome of a potentially title-deciding six-pointer is directly and decisively warped by an obvious refereeing error, and Spurs’ penalty was a grotesquely indefensible decision, which I fear may have a colossal impact on the way the final table turns out. Still, one must be stoic. Two seasons ago, a distinctly dodgy offside decision in a City-Liverpool game ended up tilting the balance – City’s eventual winning margin was two points – so, in the circumstances, it probably doesn’t do to whinge too bitterly.
In all honesty, I now have a feeling that it may well be Spurs’ name on the title after a drought of about five hundred years. My eye was drawn in August to the price of 150/1 about them finishing top of the pile, which I mentioned here at the time as surely worth a nibble, and I trust you all took my advice. Still, this will go right down to the wire. Rather than make any definitive pronouncement about what will or won’t happen in these final few furlongs, it may be wiser to admit that none of us really have a clue.
My current projections have all four of the main contenders finishing between 70 and 75 points, which basically means there will be very little in it, and almost every match involving the main men between now and May will contain key moments on which the entire season may ultimately hinge. Two fixtures stand out: the Norf-London derby in two weeks’ time, and a City-Arsenal summit at Eastlands on the penultimate weekend. But every single game from here on in will be pivotal. In many respects this is even better than the epic City-United race of four seasons ago. The wisest thing any of us can do is to sit back and savour it.
Twickenham, here we come!
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jan 18