Rugby Union: The blight of the Irish

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The Independent Online
Oh Celtic Tiger burning bright

In the forest of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame such fearful symmetry

HEADY expectation and anticipation followed the Lions performance in South Africa. An improbable Test series win, underpinned by nine Celts in the Test: three Taffies, three sweaty socks and three Paddys. But that giddy combination of adrenalin, utter commitment in adversity and a new team gellingto beat a superior opponent has evaporated. The aggressive feline has had its nose rubbed in the cat litter by southern hemisphere predators and a Celtic revival is as remote as a "no pipe smoking" sign in an Irish Rugby Football Union committee room.

Last weekend England inflicted serious damage on a moderately competitive Welsh side and the French annihilated a thoroughly average Scottish one. Suddenly every Mensa member is proclaiming the rugby discovery of the decade - the two-tier championship. Sorry, but France and England have always been the Top Cats, with Ireland, Scotland and Wales the Officer Dibbles. Every Five Nations' Championship nowadays sees the Anglo-French axis career further into the rarefied rugby stratosphere in search of southern hemisphere status. This evolutionary separation has been inexorable and highly perceptible. Why all the noise over a couple of thrashings? It's just nature taking its course. The Celtic malaise had a blip during the Lions tour, but bar-talk of a highly competitive Five Nations was just that - the usual yawn- inducing Andrexology produced after an emotional Test series win.

Ireland's position is now without hope. Coachless and clueless, we travel to Paris. The team will do their damnedest, but a rapid-eye movement nightmare which Dante would have trouble analysing awaits Les Irlandais. How has it got so bad?

Results determine your international standing today. The question we must ask is not where we have been, but where we are going. The people who govern Irish rugby can tell you where we have been - but they cannot tell you where we are supposed to be going. There are so many questions to be answered. Is our heritage real or is it just selective? Do we have a collective intellectual who can maintain our shoddily perceived international standing? Do we have a group of far-sighted, lateral thinking, dynamic visionaries who can not only keep pace with the market leaders but also exceed their level of development? Is an executive committee the way to preside over rugby affairs in Ireland? Are they propagating the game so that Ireland will be competitive in five years' time? The answer to all of these questions is no.

Ireland's problems stem mainly from a constrictive, hollow, autocratic form of rugby government. As the song goes, "you're gonna reap what you sow". This group have never looked remotely likely to seize the initiative and promote real rugby propagation for the national interest. The resignation of Brian Ashton encapsulates their splendid government. He is a quality coach with proven results, yet naive to a degree. The squad at his disposal do not meet the parameters of quality set for international rugby. You could point to the Test series hero Keith Wood, but he is a Lion in a den of Daniels. Ashton was working with a 100 per cent sow's ear. He tried to play an all-encompassing, player-interchangeable, attacking form of total rugby not too dissimilar to Bath's. The team performances at no stage had this discernible style. When Ireland were chasing the game against Scotland over the last 15 minutes three weeks ago, he famously remarked: "I'm not quite sure whose game plan that is, but it's nothing to do with me."

This malingering disillusionment and a very public disagreement with his manager, Patrick Whelan, hastened his exit. His timing could not have been more inappropriate (or more akin to Murray Kidd's departure just over a year ago), yet you sensed his desperation to be rid of it all and the quest begins again for a new coach.

The IRFU learn from their mistakes - they can repeat them all again perfectly. A group of men in a higher echelon in the IRFU, accountable to nobody, had picked a man who was probably capable of coaching a national side, but the wrong one. They then set him up with a manager whose sole aim was to control the coach and players for the union regardless of any cost or circumstance, and - hey presto - yet another coach was gone after serving only 12 months. Next!

Ireland's tentative rehabilitation can only come about if the entire IRFU Committee resign and cede legislative and executive power to an organised chain of professionals who can see the bigger picture. This is not going to happen and our decline will continue at terminal velocity. The barricades will come down to defend the IRFU's cosy position. Ashton's exit should have precipitated a blazer enema in the corridors of power - instead it will strengthen their hand. Oh death where is thy sting? Ireland are now dead and gone.

Neil Francis, the former Ireland lock, writes on rugby for the Sunday Tribune in Dublin.