- 09 Mar 15
With two fences left to clear, Craig Fitzsimons predicts more Six Nations glory for Ireland, and can’t resist dreaming of complete world domination.
How’s the heart-rate? Three down, two to go: and taking into account the absolute state of Scotland at this point in time, you’d have to suspect that Cardiff in two weeks’ time is where our fate will be settled.
The Welsh capital has been a happy hunting ground many a time in the past, not least on that momentous day we broke our 61-year Grand Slam duck in ’09; and while Wales are clearly a substantial proposition, the most obviously telling form-line here would be both teams’ respective displays against England.
On opening night in Cardiff, in what was probably the best game we’ve seen yet this season, the Welsh stormed out of the blocks like bats out of hell and established a 10-0 lead, but didn’t have the discipline or defensive fortitude to kick on or squeeze the life out of their visitors.
By contrast, Ireland’s patience the other day was exemplary: a half-time lead of 9-3 was indisputably poor reward for the overall extent of our dominance, but there was no forcing the issue, no senseless risk-taking, just a constant process of steady grinding attrition that eventually wore England down into weariness. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but after decades of being reliable under-achievers, do we really care?
Our guests were commendably committed and honest, and never gave up trying: indeed, they almost made the scoreline a poetic 19-16 with what would have been a last-gasp try, academic in terms of the result but of potentially Championship-deciding significance in terms of points differential. That too fell short, and Stuart Lancaster made no serious attempt afterwards to claim that his men had been hard done by.
So, onward we go, and relentlessly upward. Indeed (and for the first time all year, to hell with this feet-on-the-ground one-game-at-a-time lip-service) it no longer requires a massive leap of the imagination to visualise us winning the World Cup, which takes place on English soil in about six months’ time.
Four years ago, I advanced the seemingly-fanciful theory in these pages that we were genuinely capable of conquering the planet if the stars aligned. It didn’t quite happen, but we weren’t a mile off either. Ireland subdued the Aussies comprehensively in their own hemisphere and had an untimely off-day in the last eight against a more expansive and ambitious Welsh side, who proceeded to lose their semi by one point to the French, who then did likewise against the All Blacks in the Final.
The point is that there is no iron law suggesting that winning the World Cup is illegal or must permanently remain the preserve of the Southern Hemisphere dreadnoughts. If you are inclined to look back on the World Cup’s brief history (the first one was in ’87) and declare that winning the competition is out of reach because it always has been in the past, that’s up to you.
Joe Schmidt will not entertain such thoughts, and neither will the team’s spiritual leaders (Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton). England too will probably have thought World Cup victory an ambition too far until they went down there in 2003 and actually did it. These historical precedents are there to be ripped asunder, not paid undue reverence.
There is a feeling that the SANZAR nations are primed to peak in time for the global get-together, but it doesn’t always work out that way. The Aussies flopped horribly four years ago, as did South Africa in ’03. The Kiwis are generally and deservedly accorded an exalted place as The Ones Everyone Else Will Need To Beat, but a glance at the not-so-small print reveals that they managed to go 24 years without winning the thing, dragged down by the all-consuming weight of their national obsession at no less than five World Cups in a row.
We can look at the history books for all manner of sobering reality-checks, and the one that sticks out like a sore thumb is that, as you are doubtless aware, We Have Never Beaten The All Blacks. But - as their fans have never been slow to point out over and over again to anyone who’s still listening - Munster did it once. These things are not written in stone, which is surely the entire point of sport; anything can happen. Some day, unless the universe ends first, Ireland will beat the All Blacks. This autumn (if our paths cross) would seem the perfect time to start.
Turning Foul Play’s attention now to round-ball matters, it has been an undeniably hideous week for Manchester City, with two crippling setbacks in the space of a few days against Barcelona and Liverpool, raising the spectre of a trophy-less season, and begging serious doubts for the first time about Señor Pellegrini’s tactical flexibility - or lack thereof.
Jamie Carragher was especially scathing after Sunday’s debacle: the charge is that Pellegrini has no interest in varying his tactical approach in accordance with the differing demands of each fixture, and essentially sends City onto the park armed only with a predictable if admirably enterprising Plan A, which works most weeks thanks to the sheer quality in the ranks but leaves them exposed to ambush against substantial opposition (this season, that would be Liverpool and Arsenal).
Lack of significant defensive-midfield protection has been cited as a repeated failing, as has a defence which, Vincent Kompany aside, is not exactly early-90s AC Milan in the bolted-door stakes, with Mangala having a tempestuous debut season at the top level, and Demichelis never having entirely dispelled the impression that he was brought on board largely because Pellegrini had worked with him before. Personalised finger-pointing criticism of individual players is often reductive and simplistic, but it’s certainly reasonable to state that centre-back is a relative weak spot and one which will absolutely need to be addressed if City are ever going to truly gatecrash the European elite.
On the other hand, by the time you read this, it’s theoretically within the realms of possibility that City will have stormed the Nou Camp and pulled off the impossible. I would be lying if I said I’m overflowing with confidence, but stranger things have happened, though admittedly not many. Anyway, there’s a Grand Slam looming on the horizon, and for the next couple of weeks it is highly probable that my brain will slowly but surely be replaced by a rugby ball. Keep the faith, comrades. We are almost there.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jul 23