There’s an Irish saying that “What is meant for you won’t pass you by,” but don’t try and peddle that wisdom to a young sportsperson. When you’re on the periphery but within touching distance of achieving a goal, waiting to take that final step can be infuriating. Patience is what other people have, apparently.
On November 9th, 2002, my old midfield mucker Brian O’Driscoll captained Ireland for the first time in a Test match against Australia at Lansdowne Road, when we managed to end a run of 11 consecutive defeats to the Wallabies, stretching back to 1979.
The irony of the PA system blasting out U2′s Beautiful Day was not lost on anyone who had braved the wet and windy weather, players, and spectators alike. Ronan O’Gara kicked six penalties in an 18-9 victory, a hugely physical encounter. We “celebrated” by enjoying a victory lap to the strains of the song.
I was in the foothills of my international rugby career, very much part of the wider squad, numbers 24-30, rather than a matchday one heading into November Tests against Australia, Fiji, and Argentina. Three years earlier I had made my Irish debut at the 1999 World Cup but lacked the emotional maturity to understand what my responsibility entailed.
At this point I was having to try very hard and play well just to get noticed, never mind break into the national team. With my face pressed up against the glass on the outside looking in I was struck by the notion that it was harder to be dropped from the team than it was to get into it; at least that is how it looked to me.
You knew from the first team training session on a Monday, barring injury, whether you would be playing at the weekend or not. There was a hierarchy in selection terms that encompassed club and country; you had to be first choice for one to receive the same status at international level and to be fair it was accepted and justifiable in most cases.
Munster were the dominant provincial force both in Europe and domestically and, more or less, the same backline started all three Test matches that November with O’Gara essentially prising the number 10 shirt from David Humphreys.
I was genuinely surprised to make the squad for the Fiji match, the middle game, as I knew precisely where I stood in the selection pyramid, a cover player until one of two things happened, either my form with Leinster guaranteed me a starting slot and was better than my provincial rivals, or a plague of injuries struck the Irish squad.
It took me another two years and a permanent switch to the centre before the first of the two permutations materialised. Against Fiji I came on as a replacement for O’Driscoll and played outside centre. My dress rehearsal for that new role was about 10 minutes in training.
I made a few carries and some decent cover tackles in a facile 64-17 victory but nothing that would have challenged the coach’s preference in terms of the pecking order. The World Cup was 10 months away then, as it is now, and as a player it is hard to propel yourself into contention unless you get a few breaks in every sense of the word.
My status never changed, stuck in the no man’s land of a squad player without much of a playing portfolio for the national team. I didn’t make the cut for the 30-man Ireland squad for the 2003 World Cup.
Andy Farrell has been very vocal on not giving out easy caps and he has shared the load well across his panel in these three Tests. Selfishly you want to be playing with the top players, to put your best foot forward and increase your chances of staying in the team.
On a practical level it’s rarely the case for those who are third choice in a position and in those circumstances, you are beholden to the way the players and team perform on the day. A case in point was the individual and collective display in a disappointing defeat for Ireland A at the RDS and then at the weekend, a less than stellar effort in the win over Fiji. There were some players common to both matches.
There were times last Saturday when it felt like if Ireland moved away from a set-piece orientated approach they might not be guaranteed a win. Fiji scored two tries that lit up the Aviva Stadium, the first of which rocked a relatively inexperienced Irish team.
The Fijian defence was chaotic in organisation and structure but not tackling and they coped easily enough with the Irish attack before the red card. Far too often Irish players looked for contact and were unceremoniously dumped on their backsides behind the gain-line by more powerful Fijians.
A lack of cohesion in the Irish attack was rendered unimportant since Fiji gave up a glut of penalties that allowed their hosts to kick their way into the 22 and then maul their opponents over the try line and into submission.
Fiji has some brilliantly instinctive rugby players who grace top teams largely in the French Top 14 and English Premiership. Head coach Vern Cotter is trying to provide structure and an attention to the fundamentals. Clubs want the magic, that’s what sets them apart as players; the opening try is a glorious example.
The incremental improvements at defending the set-piece, the lower body height, showed progress but it was never going to be sufficient to stop Ireland from exploiting that avenue. Had they been able to, it would have made for a more interesting contest because the home side’s attacking shape was largely substandard.
Farrell articulated his disappointment in the aftermath and that will be bad news for some players. As an Irish player if you are outside the first choice 23, matches like the Fiji game are like hen’s teeth. You must stand up, stand out.
Jack Crowley, Max Deegan, and Jimmy O’Brien did that but for too many the match passed them by in terms of an opportunity to make a compelling case for future chances. Robert Baloucoune has waited patiently for caps but involvement in sufficient marquee games has not fallen his way.
At some point he will need to turn things in his favour and deliver a performance that showcases his undoubted talent. Joey Carbery and Stuart McCloskey failed to get Ireland over the gain-line in any meaningful fashion to try and build some tempo into the attack.
Crowley’s introduction has been gathering plenty of attention but it’s important to note that the game had broken open a little. Still, he was composed and had some nice touches that augured well but on the flip side there were plenty of work-ons as he stood static and very deep off slow ball.
Deegan was another to catch my eye. He offers something very different to most of the backrows available to Ireland and his footwork was effective and telling in getting over the gain-line. Farrell will have some interesting chats with his coaching staff this week as the impact off the bench could be very important against Australia.
Italy were worthy winners in Florence against a much-changed Wallabies; 12 line-up changes were from their narrow and last gasp defeat to France. Italian fullback Ange Capuzzo is making a blistering impact at Test level.
Australia’s indiscipline is a recurring obstacle to their ambition, and it handed France a bagful of points a fortnight ago. Wallabies head coach Dave Rennie has built a very decent pack, with the obvious benefit of the gargantuan Will Skelton being sprung from the bench. They pushed the French eight at both lineout and scrum time.
What was most impressive about them was their defence and tackling. I caught up with my old coach Les Kiss, now head coach at London Irish, in sad circumstances at the wake of our friend Paul McNaughton. We shared a couple of memories about Paul and how he left such an incredible legacy.
Our chat turned to rugby and specifically how the Aussies are staying in the hunt in defence. We used to call it staying in the point, when a team is attacking that you keep fighting until the ball is turned over or they score.
Apart from the match-winning try, where French wing Damian Penaud scored an absolute cracker – it should have been stopped as he beat three gold clad defenders – Australia consistently frustrated the French attack. The Irish attack has stuttered in successive weeks, early fluency and rhythm will go a long way to building an Irish performance.