O'Sullivan fails to see the funny side of Ireland's pantomime exit

Another coach faced the press yesterday after his men went out of a World Cup in which they were supposed to shine. Martin Pengelly assesses the failure of a talented team
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A comedian attended Ireland's homecoming press conference yesterday and asked, in a duly exaggerated French accent, whether the World Cup expellees' head coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, was now a "croque monsieur". The coach's subsequent defiance, perhaps as forced as the grin extracted by Risteard Cooper's slightly less than Wildean remark, at least had a solid foundation. The coach is not going to jump and the Irish Rugby Football Union is unlikely to give him a push – not after sending him off to France in the first place with a brand, spanking new contract, anyway.

"I wouldn't agree with the statement that it's time to change either myself or any of the coaching team," said O'Sullivan, not visibly holding his sides. "I've a contract with the IRFU that runs for another four years and I intend to see that out."

There you are, then. Gareth Jenkins, the Wales coach deposed after his side made a fudge of Saturday's match against Fiji and beat the Irish to the queue for the next plane home, won't be enjoying O'Sullivan's company down the job centre quite yet.

O'Sullivan's new deal, stretching to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and containing dispensation to coach, if asked, the 2009 British and Irish Lions in South Africa, indicated the level of confidence felt across Irish rugby before the kick-off in France despite a draw for Pool D which contained the hosts and the perennially underrated and excluded Argentines. Three Triple Crowns in four seasons will do that to any country, not to mention the presence of seven of a pack – Munster's – who won the 2006 Heineken Cup and a back-line based around Leinster's lavishly talented Lions centres, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll.

Such achievements and such players – and however spurious talk of a "golden generation" usually is in any sport, Ireland have not had so many potentially world-class operators together for a very long time, if ever – will always create great expectations. And should things then go wrong, the corresponding hoo-hah at home will always be correspondingly loud.

"The World Cup," O'Sullivan said, not visibly warming to his task, "hasn't gone well."

He had a point: an unconvincing win over Namibia (32-17) and a catatonic, near catastrophic display against Georgia, beating a nation of eight rugby pitches and 500 senior players 14-10 after surviving a late video ruling on a Georgian pushover try, were followed by a meek defeat to France (25-3) and, in Paris on Sunday, a convincing 30-15 loss to Argentina that confirmed Ireland's exit at the pool stage for the first time.

On the field, Ireland's problems were obvious: the ageing Munster-based pack failed to fire; the long-established half-backs, Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer, fell flat, leading to Stringer being dropped after two matches; and O'Driscoll and co provided only splutters of their fast-flowing best, as fast-flowing backs generally will when their supply of possession is horribly clogged at source.

Off the field, French press speculation about O'Gara's private life – revolving around gambling habits and the state of his marriage – surfaced, oddly enough, in the week leading up to the match against the struggling hosts. At the same time, rumours arose of unrest among the players, with the talented full-back Geordan Murphy said to have packed his bags and left for Leicester, the English club who pay his wages and pick him to start much more often than O'Sullivan.

"There's no doubt I have the appetite for this job and that this team can get back to where they were only five months ago," O'Sullivan said. "I suppose memories are very short in this business and it has been highlighted that things have gone wrong for us at a time when there's huge exposure."

There, with a thin-lipped precision only a man enduring a grilling slightly less enjoyable than a triple molar-extraction without anaesthetic can offer, is the reason for Ireland's fall. Things have gone wrong whenever the pressure has come on.

It is true that five months or so ago Ireland, with victories over Wales, Scotland and – crushingly – England behind them, finished the Six Nations Championship with a big win over Italy in Rome. The Italians, however, scored a late try which made France's task in Paris, where they later beat Scotland to win the title on points difference, that vital bit easier.

Ireland took their foot off the pedal, just as they had against France at Croke Park, where a last-minute try by Vincent Clerc snatched away the victory that would have set up a tilt at a first Grand Slam since 1948.

Such a failure should have caused very loud bells to ring in Dublin. The tournament is not in great health, as World Cup fortunes – France limping into a quarter-final against New Zealand, England struggling to put Samoa and Tonga away and to put two passes together, Wales going out and Scotland and Italy producing the rain-soaked nadir of the whole event in St-Etienne – suggest. As Frank Sinatra almost sang, if not about the oldest rugby tournament in the world, if you can't make it there, you won't make it anywhere.

Instead, after losing to the Scots and squeezing past the Italians in warm-up matches, O'Sullivan's men snoozed on. The head coach persisted with the same first team – keeping the bench staffed by Ulster players possibly susceptible to the perennial suggestion of favour shown to the two big southern provinces – into the World Cup and as things began to go wrong. That, the theory goes, only added to a comfort zone long established by central contracts, minimal exposure to decent rugby outside the Heineken Cup – the Magners League providing rather limited competition with similarly diluted Welsh and Scottish sides – and a refusal to contemplate the kind of major changes to the side that are now as inevitable as they are essential.

"The players are not wrapped in cotton wool," O'Sullivan said, answering references to the team's isolation at their Bordeaux base and joyless demeanour when seen, briefly, in public. "What fellas do when that pressure comes on is they work harder. They want to fix it and make it right. That's what we tried to do. We're very disappointed for the fans, as much as ourselves. We came to this World Cup with very high expectations and those expectations were well-founded. They were based on the fact that we played some great rugby in the last year. Unfortunately, we haven't reproduced that form. That's been hugely disappointing for us.

"We have to factor into it that we were coming into a pool that was regarded as the most difficult in the tournament. I wouldn't use the word "disaster"; I think "very disappointing" is fairer."

Unfortunately, few in Ireland would agree. O'Sullivan must now start an extensive rebuilding programme under the kind of pressure that proved too great for the current team to bear.

None over the eight: Ireland's failure to get past the quarter-finals

Ireland have played every World Cup since the first tournament in 1987, reaching the quarter-finals in 1987, 1991, 1995 and 2003.

* 1987 Australia & NZ: Finished second in their pool before being beaten 33-15 by Australia in the quarter-finals.

* 1991 England: Again second in their pool and again a quarter-final defeat by Australia, this time by the narrowest of margins, 19-18.

* 1995 South Africa: A familiar theme developing... the pool runners-up were beaten, this time by France, 36-12 in the quarter-finals.

* 1999 Wales: Behind the winners, Australia, in the pool before contesting a quarter-final play-off unique to this tournament. Lost it 28-24 to Argentina.

* 2003 Australia: Qualified from the pool again, once more behind Australia, but were beaten 43-21 by France in the quarter-finals.

* 2007 France: Promised much but offered little – eliminated at group stage.