Dazzled by the spotlight
September 24, 2011
Cian Healy impressed against the Wallabies scooping the man-of-the-match award © Getty Images
Ireland's tournament-jolting, path-opening, hemisphere-shifting victory against Australia took some getting over. Such was the glee in New Zealand at the discomfiture of their neighbours, their media were more than happy to keep running with tales of Irish achievement and Irish possibility garnished with ceaseless mocking of the Wallabies.
New Zealand is a pretty unforgiving nation when it comes to rugby failure (the treatment being doled out to All Blacks winger Zac Guildford, after he had one poor game and was hounded into the spotlight for a supposed drink problem, has been a shameful example).
And this rush to kick the Australians has kept the Irish in the spotlight which, despite the valiant efforts of players and management, meant that the focus has been backwards rather than forwards. Even at the team announcement for the clash with Russia, the Australia game was the story as Ireland coach Declan Kidney had to angrily refute claims by ex-Wallaby centre Tim Horan that backs coach Alan Gaffney had admitted the Irish players were deliberately faking injuries to slow Australian momentum.
Being the biggest story at the World Cup has created a level of exposure neither Kidney nor the squad are entirely comfortable with or used to. Ireland's progress from Pool C was always going to come down to their final clash with the Italians, and with Russia a means of gearing up for that clash, the focus needs to switch sharply to an Italy side that has the capacity to cause Ireland problems.
A major issue for Kidney is to get his side back to the mental pitch they achieved against Australia. Ireland have an infuriating habit of only producing their best when they are in a corner, criticised for poor displays and expected to be beaten by big-name opponents.
We saw it against England at Lansdowne Road last March. Martin Johnson's men arrived full of brio, expecting to be crowned as Grand Slam champions only to be ripped apart by an Irish side fired up by their own inconsistencies in the championship and the desire to humble the 'old enemy'.
Something similar happened against Australia. Ireland went into the match on a horrid run of form, partly self-induced as there was a definite policy to hold back in certain areas against the USA on their World Cup opener and in the warm-up internationals.
However, that policy did contribute to an Australian side that was ill-prepared for a tactically excellent Irish effort, playing a brand of cup rugby their players were reared on through school and the All-Ireland League. There was also an undoubted element of complacency in the Wallaby side, who revealed only a rudimentary knowledge of the Ireland players beyond Brian O'Driscoll.
They could not envisage losing to Ireland when it mattered because they never had before and even when put to the pin of their World Cup collars by the Irish in 1991 and 2003, the Australians never lost the belief that they would win.
Add all of that together and there numerous motivational triggers for Kidney to pull. The same cannot be said for the clash against the Italians or the likely quarter-final against Wales.
In the modern, professional rugby era of scientific preparation, the old scenario of Ireland never being comfortable in the role of favourites should no longer apply but it continues to.
We saw it last year when Scotland turned them over in the final rugby match at Croke Park, denying Ireland a Triple Crown in the process. We saw it against Italy and Scotland earlier this year in the Six Nations when Ireland struggled to put away clearly inferior teams and we saw it against the USA in their World Cup opener a couple of weeks ago when what should have been a routine dismantling became a worrying struggle.
Nonetheless, Ireland should still have too much for the Italians, who have yet to defeat the Irish since coming into the Six Nations in 2000.
It is Wales who are the real worry.
The Welsh are looking good and, most significantly, are looking good without being hyped up. They should have beaten South Africa in their first game and were thoroughly professional against a tough, if tired, Samoan side in their other big pool game.
They are a team with talent across the park, from Adam Jones to Sam Warburton, Mike Phillips and a powerful centre combination of Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts. In Warren Gatland, they have a coach who carries a Kidney-like capacity for achieving the unexpected and, with his knowledge of the Irish psyche, the Kiwi ex-Ireland coach will be relishing all the attention Kidney's men have been getting since beating Australia.
Furthermore, Wales do not fear Ireland. They won in Dublin in 2008 and in Cardiff this year (albeit courtesy of what should have been a disallowed try) and, though their club sides regularly fail to the provinces in the Heineken Cup and what is now the Pro12 League, consistent exposure to the Irish players has reduced the intimidation factor.
Beating Australia was a monumental achievement and one that opened up a path to the final for Kidney's Ireland side. How galling it would be to set up that platform only to crash out to the Welsh in the quarter-finals.
And it could well happen. Wales are waiting in the long grass.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.