‘Irish Rugby is home.’ The catchphrase used throughout Ireland’s Autumn Internationals to mark the historic return to old Lansdowne Road. Yet, ask anyone and they’ll say it wasn’t a homecoming to remember. If anything, it’ll probably be one which will be forgotten by many in a short space of time – for a number of reasons.
Ireland faced South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand and Argentina in this years’ Guinness Series at the new Aviva Stadium. It was the first time an International match was held at the grounds, since November 2006, when Ireland defeated the Pacific Islands in the old stadium.
The run up to the Series saw the IRFU come under intense criticism for their ticket allocation strategy whenever it was first released, yet they remained confident that the 50,000-seated stadium would be full once the day of the match came. Days before the Series was due to begin, the IRFU issued a statement and admitted they had made a mistake – with clubs all across Ireland returning numerous unsold tickets, the magical welcome home for Irish rugby looked further away than ever.
And this was the case, when, at Ireland’s first match against South Africa, only 35,517 people turned out. Interestingly, the average attendance over the four games was a mere 35,820, with the New Zealand match pulling the largest crowd with 46,302 people. A telling tale, when just a year previously, the 82,300-capacity of Croke Park was sold out. A number of reasons could have contributed to the drastic fall in demand for tickets, but I’ll leave it with you to decide and debate which is the more plausible.
On a slightly brighter note regarding the stadium, I’ve been fortunate to attend Croke and the Aviva for International games, and from a visitors’ point of view, the Aviva is a very impressive place, much more intimate, and intimidating – even with the smaller crowd.
Moving onto the squad itself. Despite the highs and lows of the ‘journey’ over the years, Ireland had been regarded as one of the top rugby nations in the world and since winning the Grand Slam in 2009, the pressure to continue to perform well will only have intensified for the players and management. It was therefore vital that Ireland pulled out incredible performances after a disappointing summer tour in June. But this wasn’t to be.
Personally, I felt the Autumn Internationals provided the perfect opportunity for some of Ireland’s younger and emerging talent to come into the side and seize their chance, to show they can step up to this level of play and thus deserve to be a part of the teams’ future.
However, out of the 34-man squad Declan Kidney named for the Series, only two new uncapped players were included; Leinster’s Devin Toner and Munster’s Johne Murphy. For the other team members, barring a few due to injury, the squad was the same as in past years. Some of Ireland’s players had become the best in Europe – and further afield – but it needs to be said that this ‘Golden Generation’ of Irish rugby players is coming to an end.
John Hayes, for example, has for years been a dependable and vital individual in the front row, but recent form has shown him to be struggling. Instead of trying a younger option in the squad, Declan Kidney insists on using Hayes. Why? Don’t get me wrong – you don’t earn over 100 caps for your country, if you’re no good – but Hayes is in all honesty, at 37 years of age, too old to be an International prop.
Brian O’Driscoll, one of the best centres in the world, also (in my opinion) had a poor AI Series, and I would go as far as to say, he is no longer the player he was; a prime example of this was during the Samoa match. As Samoa kicked and chased the ball downfield, O’Driscoll raced back to try and gather the ball first – but he didn’t. Instead he was outrun, quite considerably, by team mate Denis Leamy.
Paul O’Connell’s absence didn’t go unnoticed either as there were a number of occasions when the team appeared lost and unsure of their game plan against each of the visiting sides. A few players maybe did try to step in to the role of a leader, but not to the same extent as the Munsterman. When O’Connell returns, so will more prominent leadership, but as with Hayes and O’Driscoll, O’Connell is one of the older squad members who won’t be around for years to come. When his playing days for Ireland come to an end, who will step into the gap he leaves?
A number of other ‘high profile’ players in the team also failed to produce magnificent performances throughout the four games – Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, and even Ulster’s Stephen Ferris – remained quiet against the opposition and rarely posed any threat.
All-in-all, it was a disappointing series, with two wins and two losses recorded, but this was Ireland’s last chance to face the Southern Hemisphere teams before next year’s World Cup. Losing to South Africa and New Zealand, the top two ranked teams in the world, resulted in Ireland dropping down the IRB rankings. Their win against Argentina brought them back up the table again slightly, but for a team who struggled to contain Samoa in their second fixture, it’s not exactly an achievement to be proud of.
If this series was to set Ireland up for the World Cup next year, things are not looking promising. Declan Kidney may have entered the Ireland setup with a new perspective and a new plan, compared to his predecessor Eddie O’Sullivan, but as the seasons have gone by, it looks like he is falling into the same patterns; i.e choosing the same players for his side, rather than selecting a lesser-known choice who is on great form and deserves to start a game.
Ireland have a lot of work ahead of them, not just for the World Cup, but for the Six Nations next year, because if they don’t start to gel again and perform like they know they can – and have done in the past – it’s going to be hard for Ireland to be taken seriously by the other nations anytime soon.