Rugby Union: Murphy's law is all about making haste slowly: Victory at Twickenham was sweet but Ireland's coach is not getting carried away. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
NEW horizon or false dawn, a win over England ought to provide the most extravagant encouragement but, as the Welsh would testify, all too often it is as misleading as the notion that rugby union will become the dominant sport of Ireland. As the Irish know so well.

Take another example. If you entered a World Cup quarter-final as no-hopers and went within seconds of beating the subsequent champions, you might reasonably regard it as a long step along a road going somewhere meaningful. It happened to Ireland, and it wasn't.

Scotland play at Lansdowne Road on Saturday and past experience warns the Irish, even after their outstanding achievement in winning at Twickenham 12 days ago, to guard against the worst. They have not beaten the Scots since 1988. Why, indeed, should we believe that this victory over England means anything more for Ireland than a precious two points in the Five Nations' Championship? Certainly not because Irish blarney says so, but instead because for once the euphoria has been swept away on a tide of realism.

Or so the Irish hope, because previously the tide would have been of misery if they had been so disposed. When Gordon Hamilton scored his try against the Wallabies in 1991, a miracle seemed about to happen; instead, Ireland lost and did not win again for the best part of two years.

When Mick Galwey scored his try against England last March the miracle did happen, because Ireland won. By the time Simon Geoghegan scored his try at Twickenham 12 days ago Ireland had, to use Gerry Murphy's expression, ceased to be a joke. 'And that,' Murphy, their coach, said in his self-deprecating way, 'is progress.'

Whether it will continue is the question Murphy desperately wants to answer in the affirmative, though a more fundamental question might be how easily do all the sophisticated preparation and testing that are part of the modern rugby world sit on Irish shoulders? These, surely, are the last guys to benefit from the science of rugby.

Not so, says Murphy. If you lose out in fitness and conditioning, even if you are Irish, you are liable simply to lose. Which is why he is as delighted as he is relieved the intense scrutiny under which he has placed his team is bringing its reward.

'It's actually beginning to sink in that you can't succeed in international rugby without proper preparation,' he said. 'It can be very mundane. Last season, for instance, was very much a holding operation where we needed to get a win and get simple things like defence and organisation right.

'We've gone some way to doing that and to win at Twickenham was a big step forward but without the hard-headed attitude that puts that game behind us we would probably be liable to let it slip again. I said after we'd beaten England last season that we had to forget it because it was a completely emotive, one-off match when we were highly motivated and they were highly under-motivated.

'But instead we went backwards. We played well for only about 20 minutes of our game against Romania in the autumn and then reverted to making mistakes and farting around. We played bravely in France but never looked as if we were going to win the match and we didn't have the necessary composure against Wales.'

Then it came right, in so far as you could say so about a 13-12 win. Indeed Murphy is, if anything, critical of the performance at Twickenham, complaining of the chances his side missed and so providing evidence of the new rigour he has attempted to graft on to native romanticism. 'At last we are very much more aware of what we need to do, and I couldn't understate what that means, but with Irish rugby it's very much two steps forward, two to the side and another inch forward. It's probably better to make haste slowly and get it right; on the other hand, for us even to be standing still we have to be rushing headlong forward. It could only happen in Ireland.'

The problem is to go from here. With a rugby-playing population of, at best, 12,500, the Irish have an inbuilt disadvantage against England, France or, come to that, Wales. The capacity crowds who turn out for Five Nations matches at Lansdowne Road are misleading because this is a minority sport with strictly limited public support.

Yet if the Irish consider those very opponents whom they nearly beat in the World Cup quarter-final (several of Irish descent), they have some sort of solution. 'Our playing numbers are a problem we are always going to have, though the better organised we are the better able we are to handle it,' Murphy said.

'But it can be done and, of all the people we should be looking to copy, Australia is the obvious one. We have the same problem they have, not just in relative numbers but because their major games are Aussie Rules and rugby league and ours are Gaelic games and soccer. They have demonstrated that it is possible for rugby union to make inroads, so much so that they won the World Cup. This is an example I would happily follow. With all this competition, it's no good being the nice guy; you just have to keep winning. In Ireland soccer has doubled its playing numbers to 200,000 because the national side are winning and even the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) are getting worried.'

Murphy will be able to see what he means in the summer when Ireland tour Australia, a daunting trip given the savage experience the last Irish tourists suffered in New Zealand two years ago when Murphy was Ciaran Fiztgerald's assistant coach. 'I'm not so confident about the young guys coming through, which makes Australia hugely important to us,' Murphy said.

But for now he would be quite content with a win over Scotland to go with the one over England, and so finish with two wins from four for the second successive championship. 'For us two wins in a season is good going,' Murphy conceded. Three (Ireland last had the Triple Crown in 1985) would be astounding and four (their only Grand Slam was in 1948) beyond even an Irishman's fondest imaginings.

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