Ireland can toast a decade of greatness
May 15, 2009
Ireland's Grand Slam triumph in 2009 capped their most successful decade © Getty Images
The dramatic day a few weeks ago when Ireland clinched only the second Grand Slam in their history wasn't just the climax of this year's Six Nations championship, but also completed the first decade since the tournament was extended by the admission of Italy.
Historians warn us against arbitrary periodisation, and there's little more arbitrary than a decade, always assuming you can agree on a definition. But it is how we tend to see our own lives and it supplies a means of looking at teams over longer, but still readily remembered, periods.
The champions of the 2000s are France. No particular surprise there and it seems appropriate, reflecting the outcome in both 2006 and 2007, that it should be on points difference over Ireland. Each won 72 tournament points from 36 victories, but France's plus points difference over the 50 matches was 485 to Ireland's 316. England were 3rd with 66 points, followed by a drop to Wales on 48, Scotland 29 and Italy on 13.
France continued a pattern established in 1959 when the team led by Lucien Mias took their first ever championship. Since then they've been the top team in alternate decades - the 60s, 80s and now the 00s - while finishing second to two truly great teams, the Welsh of the 1970s and English of the 1990s.
The truly spectacular performance, though, is Ireland's. Their record in the 1990s, in spite of talents like Keith Wood, was one of the worst by any team in tournament history, winning only 18 points. Ireland had not had a winning record in any full decade since the 1930s.
Ireland's remarkable improvement in an era likely to be defined in terms of Brian O'Driscoll can best be seen by taking out results against Italy. This is not remotely to suggest that the Six Nations should consider doing so - Italy's record over their first 50 matches is only marginally worse than France (16 pts), and look what they've done over the past half-century.
But it makes comparisons with other decades much easier. Ireland's record of 26 wins in 40 matches against their older-established rivals is by far their best ever in a full decade. Six wins against England equals the performance of teams that included Fergus Slattery and Mike Gibson in the 1970s, while seven against Wales and nine over Scotland are both best evers.
That dominance of the Scots, broken only in the foot-and-mouth delayed match in 2001, follows almost complete futility in the 1990s when Scotland won nine matches and the other was drawn. It is a reversal of fortunes that has few parallels in tournament history. It also reflected what happened to Scotland, who began the era as champions. Four defeats by Italy, starting with that extraordinary debut match in 2000, have felt like low-points for Scottish rugby.
But the six victories have concealed to some extent quite how grim a decade this has been for the Scots, with only 17 points from 40 matches against the others. That eclipses not only Scotland's previous low point in the 1950s, when 15 consecutive defeats and three whitewashes separated the extraordinary eclipse of John Gwilliam's starry Wales team in the match of Peter Kinninmonth's extraordinary drop-goal at Murrayfield in 1951 and the 14-8 defeat of the Welsh on the same ground four years later and a total of 22 points were won, but trumps the hapless 1990s Irish as the weakest home nation of the last century.
England's fast start meant that, in spite of a long spell of mediocrity, they had their best decade - other than the 1990s, by which they are doomed to be judged much as Wales are by the seventies - since the 1950s. Wales's results on the other hand show a miserable decade relieved by those two remarkable Grand Slams. Eight of their sixteen wins against teams other than Italy came in those two years, as many as they recorded, at a rate of one per season, in the remaining eight campaigns. Even the 1980s, far from fondly remembered, were better than that.
Take out France's 10 wins over Italy and they have a total of 52 points for the decade. Exactly the same as their record for the 1960s. The intervening decades ran 49, 56, 50. That sequence puts me in mind of cricket writer Rob Steen's insight that David Gower usually averaged somewhere in the 40s across a test series. It doesn't acquit completely of routine accusations of inconsistency, but certainly casts a different light on them.
The range between France's best and worst decade is seven points. England's range is 39. France aren't always brilliant and occasionally they're dire, but they are rarely the latter for very long.
What they haven't yet done is produce a team that defined an era as Carling and Johnson's England (64 points) did the 1990s or Wales (60 points from 39 matches) the 1970s. Those were also, until England's 6-4 record since 2000, the only teams since the 1950s to have a winning record against France across a decade.
And if those are the only two teams to have exceeded France's best decade only one more - the contemporary Irish, further underlining quite how good they have been - has done better than their worst. Over those five decades France have won 46 more championship points - nearly one per year, a significant margin in a competition that has offered an average maximum of 8.4 per season, better than nearest rivals England.
The years since 1959 have certainly been France's half century. But, in terms of where they will be longest and most fondly remembered - points difference or not - the past 10 years have been Ireland's decade.