Irish rugby needs a bailout after tough season

The tour guide on the bus thought his first words were funny, hilarious in fact as he greeted us on our arrival into his native city on Friday afternoon.

He wasn’t to know that our phones had just started hopping with rumors that Gerry Ryan was dead, and that nobody was really in the mood for his hilarity.

That didn’t stop our monsieur, however, as he tried to convince us that a nation known for its arrogance can do humor as well.

“Welcome to Toulouse,” he said. “It is Toulouse and not To-Lose,” he added as he nearly cracked up at a joke I am sure he repeats every time he has English speakers on his bus.

He was wrong, of course. By Saturday night, it was To-Lose as far as Heineken Cup champions Leinster were concerned.

By Sunday, San Sebastian was also known as To-Lose by the Munster team left to fly the flag for Irish rugby in their semifinal against Biarritz on Spanish soil.

The Magners League is all that is left for the Blues and the Reds after their French collapse this weekend, and not even the fact that they could yet meet in an All-Ireland final can offer much consolation right now.

It has been a bad year for Irish rugby, simply because the current generation have raised the bar of expectation to such unprecedented heights.

There is no Grand Slam for Ireland in 2010. No Triple Crown. No Heineken Cup for holders Leinster. No Heineken Cup for two times champions Munster.

A year after the highs of that Ronan O’Gara drop goal in Cardiff there is an air of depression about Irish rugby, and rightly so because the World Cup is just around the corner.

The Grand Slam achievements of 2009 were all the more remarkable and all the more wonderful because of the team’s World Cup failure in France two years earlier.

That collapse effectively cost Eddie O’Sullivan his job and provided Declan Kidney with the platform that led to Ireland’s clean sweep a year ago.

Kidney wasn’t involved in either Toulouse or San Sebastian on Saturday or Sunday, but such is the expectation among the Irish public now concerning our rugby team that both results will have had a negative effect on his current standing.

That’s what happens when the private school game goes public -- expectations rise and so do demands.

Fed on the diet of constant success in 2009, the “rugby come latelys” can’t understand why “their” teams didn’t perform in France and Spain last weekend.

They will expect Kidney’s Ireland to perform, not just at the 2011 World Cup but also on the tour to New Zealand and Australia this summer.

The fact that Leinster’s front row was destroyed on Saturday and Munster couldn’t cope without O’Connell, Leamy, Howlett and Dowling on Sunday won’t matter to the man in the street who now has a real interest in Irish rugby.

Thanks to 2009, he will expect success in 2011 and the cracks that appeared in the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup won’t matter.

Leinster and Munster may have been the big losers last weekend, but Kidney may yet be a victim of the fall-out.

He has to restore national belief and fast. Judging by what I saw in Toulouse on Saturday and on my television screen on Sunday, that may yet be a hell of a job.


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