YOU MAY HAVE heard the commanding tones of Paul O’Connell this week.
His was the voice talent advertising those remaining unsold tickets for the visit of Italy to the Aviva Stadium.
The altogether more important section of the IRFU’s marketing mix will be taking place in a prime time slot on Saturday evening when Ireland play France.
It is the most daunting of trips, one that Irish teams just have not been able to get their heads around with only two wins there in 60 years.
Declan Kidney has drawn his conclusions from Sunday’s debacle in with Wales and somehow decided to name the exact same side as last week. Of course there’s one change from the XV which actually started that game, with Keith Earls returning to the fold.
The coach has promised that all our mistakes have been learned, that Ireland will no longer kick badly, or aimlessly and ball carriers will be closed down quicker. It will not be so easy to get over our gain-line this time around.
The same personnel have been chosen to right all the wrongs, and it will only take them six days to do it.
‘Thanks Donnacha, back on the bench.’
That’s a lot of loose talk about individual and collective errors, but not a soul is being punished. The coach, of course, will always prefer to keep that kind of thing in-house, but what is far, far more worrying is that praise and promotion for excellent performances is equally unforthcoming.
We hate to continually bang on about Donncha O’Callaghan, his was not the worst performance on Saturday, but he simply does not deserve to be in the team ahead of Donnacha Ryan.
When Ryan appeared on the pitch, his extra intensity drove Bradley Davies to madness. A little bit of treatment and soon Ryan was up sprightly and claimed a line-out inside the welsh 22. The result: ‘thanks Donnacha, back on the bench.’
At what point do guys in the first team – not purposefully, but subliminally – let their efforts trail off slightly? O’Callaghan may even be a bad example in this regard as he is in fact the one biting at Ryan’s heel in the Munster starting line-up.
That sort of competition is what players are used to at provincial level. It pushes them along, drives them to improve. When somebody else comes in to fill their jersey (even if it is ‘only’ a Pro12 game) they are worried, and suddenly they have a point to prove again.
With Ireland, that doesn’t seem to be there any more. Players like Dan Tuohy, Shane Jennings or (a Kidney favourite) Paddy Wallace would be expected to be in or around the starting line-up, yet have been sent back to their provinces – thanks but no thanks. Shoul a freak injury befall Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien or Jonathan Sexton, back up options will be scarce.
Jennings and his ilk must almost be relieved to get back to their day job. There, the healthy level of competition still exists. Players are rewarded, players are punished: all is fair in love and rugby.
With Ireland, just as the leading lights can fall into a trap of complacency, the men supposed to be snapping at their heels grow despondent. They are disheartened by the evidence in front of them that screams: no matter what they have done in the past six months, or what they doin training this week, only a serious injury will open the door to a starting berth.
Every now and then, the first-teamers up their game and show everyone why they are where they are, vindicating the flawed selection. They may well deliver one of those in Paris, and the IRFU will more than likely sell out their Lansdowne venue when Italy visit on 25 February.
But for many players, without a threat to their jersey: the mistakes creep in, laurels are rested upon and the performance plumb new depths before they spring an awe-inspiring return to form.
Hopefully, one of those will come around 8pm this Saturday night, but it will only be a short-term fix.