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Dublin: 15 °C Friday 29 August, 2014

Simon Hick column: Irish rugby is in the middle of a golden age

Thanks to a remarkable generation of players, the Ireland team is in the midst of its ‘Alex Ferguson era’.

Peter O'Mahony (left) celebrates the recent win over Wales.
Peter O'Mahony (left) celebrates the recent win over Wales.
Image: ©INPHO/Colm O'Neill

ONE OF THE most enjoyable aspects of being a sports fan is the cyclical nature of it. No matter how bad things get, you know eventually they’ll improve.

Sometimes all it takes is one signing, one try or one goal to change the whole course of a season, and that’s what keeps you hooked. A good cup run or a charge up the league table is one thing but to transform a whole generation, to fundamentally change a club, a country or a sport, takes something special.

In the late 1980s Manchester United fans had no real reason to believe success was just around the corner, in spite of the Busby era. They had appointed a series of unconvincing managers, rivals Liverpool were the best run club in Europe and they’d gone so long without a league or European Cup that their history was becoming irrelevant.

Then, a number of things happened in a short space of time. Alex Ferguson was appointed manager, the Class of ’92 emerged and the Premier League TV money meant that success was rewarded like never before. The result was the most sustained period of success any English club had ever seen.

There was a similarly bleak outlook facing Irish rugby in the mid 1990s. Historically we were the least successful country in the championship and in that decade we remained true to that tradition.

The game had gone professional, but along with the Scottish union, the IRFU were the ones most scared of change and fought the hardest to keep the game amateur. It was essentially a minority sport that, besides the Five Nations, was never shown on television.

A few seemingly unconnected events at that time have since taken on greater significance. The Heineken Cup was born, the IRFU opted for central contracts and the Irish football team was about to go into temporary decline. The biggest factor by far though was the group of players that emerged.

Denis Hickie supported by Ronan O'Gara 20/3/2007

Men like Ronan O'Gara and Denis Hickie helped to change the Irish rugby landscape.

Source: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Not only were they hugely talented, they were also strong-willed to the point of being obsessive. Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Anthony Foley, Donncha O’Callaghan, Peter Stringer, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon Darcy, Leo Cullen, Denis Hickie, Shane Jennings, Shane Horgan, among others, all not only wanted to be great players, they also wanted to change the culture of provincial and Irish rugby.

It would be a rare thing to have one such man in a sport, but to have ten or fifteen is beyond explanation. We are now almost twenty years into it, and it feels normal, but Irish rugby is in the middle of an extended golden age (competing for Six Nations championships, winning Heineken Cups, and a constant flow of new talent coming from the underage sides) and unlike football it’s been done without the help of a global surge in the game, a huge TV deal or an oligarch pumping in cash.

When you look at rugby worldwide, no other country, besides maybe Argentina, have taken such huge strides. It isn’t just the results on the field either, its the way we are viewed by other nations. Besides the very occasional thumping from New Zealand, every team knows Ireland will be tough to beat.

We attract the top coaches from abroad, the best Southern Hemisphere players want to move here, and we usually play a nice style of rugby. After a dip for a season or two, the mood for this championship is upbeat.

We expected to win in Twickenham, the fans will demand a handsome points margin against Italy and we’ve appointed ourselves favourites to beat France in Paris.

The country has got used to the idea of competing with the world’s best teams, home and away. As we focus in on a possible second championship in five years, and grumble quietly about a missed opportunity to bag a Grand Slam, it’s worth reflecting that we are, in relative terms, enjoying our Alex Ferguson era.

Hopefully this one won’t end when the manager leaves.

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