Scorned and covered with scars, we strove with our last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star… to right the unrightable wrong… to fight the unbeatable foe… to run where the brave dare not go… to ride into hell for a heavenly cause… And lose. Again. We did.
Ireland, Rugby World Cup 2011
Following the bruising disappointments of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Ireland, supporters and players, approached the 2011 tournament with some trepidation, almost afraid to emotionally commit, afraid to truly believe. Following a confidence-soaring victory over Australia, Ireland faced Wales in the quarter final… Hopes rose and as they say, it’s the hope that gets you in the end.
Wales 22 – Ireland 10.
Paul O’Connell – ‘Afterwards, I didn’t feel like talking. What was the point of even trying to figure out what had happened? That night, I was lying in bed thinking if I can avoid thinking about this, I can get some sleep and I’ll wake up in a few hours with a clear head. But then, I thought, in the morning it’ll hit me and I’ll have to process this and deal with it. I got up, got dressed and went out… On the way back to the hotel at 5.30am, many hours later, I met a man from Drogheda dressed as a leprechaun talking to Fergus McFadden.
We had a couple more drinks. Before we knew it, it was 9am and we went for a Big Brekkie of bacon, mushrooms and sausages. It was disgusting. Sometimes the leprechaun was full of chat and other times he fell silent and me and Fergus gave out to him for not contributing more to the conversation. At 10.30am the leprechaun ordered whiskeys all round… I finally got to bed at 3.15am the following night. When my alarm rang at 9am, it was a few seconds before the realisation came that I’d spent 24 hours trying to escape our defeat, unsuccessfully.’
Senior Touch Championships, 2017
After the crushing disappointment of losing in the 2016 European Championships Final in a ‘golden try’ drop-off to England, Ireland approached the 2017 Championships with some trepidation… etc. Hope etc.
Final: Wales 7 Ireland 7. Ireland lose on ‘golden try’ drop off.
This is how it went for me after the game: When the final whistle went, everything sort of clouded over, went a bit surreal, like a silent black & white film… ‘Again? Lost in a drop off again? Is this happening? This is obscene.’ Classical physical responses – agitation, slight nausea. Squinting to try block the world out, to filter out what you don’t want to see. I huddled up with the Welsh team on the pitch and congratulated them, sat through the presentations in a daze. Couldn’t look at my teammates. Devastation all around. Again.
Then I went to the shop and bought myself a Dairy Milk bar. My go to. I felt numb which was better than actually feeling. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Then I did. I thought I might go to the cinema. Knew I wouldn’t. Didn’t want to go out. Knew I would. Ended up drinking Baby Guinness. Not my go to. Talked to some of the other teams. Walked late in the night for an hour back to the hotel alone looking around me, taking in the Georgian architecture, not thinking about the final. Got to bed at 3am. Got up at 4 to let roommate in who’d forgotten his key. Got up at 6 to go to the airport. Put on last pair of socks – white ankle socks. Realised I’d no boxers left. Turned pair of Avengers ones I was wearing, inside out and was good to go.
Got to airport and checked in. Bought a coffee. Couldn’t drink it. Still not thinking about the final. Heard last call for my flight. With my ankle swollen and sore, I limped down to Gate 22. Further away than I thought. I arrived and it said ‘Gate Closed’. There was a flight attendant at the desk. ‘I’m supposed to be on that flight to Dublin,’ I said to her in a panic. She looked at me, ‘Do you mean that flight sir?’ She pointed two metres to my right to the long line of people I’d just walked past who were queuing at Gate 22. ‘This is Gate 23 sir.’ ‘Oh. Thanks.’ 10am Arrived in work back in Dublin. 11.00-12.17 ish. Did some work. 13.00-15.00 Thought about great sports teams over the years who’d never won a tournament. 15.35 Left work. 16.45 Had a bowl of cereal. Went to bed.
‘The mind is everything. What you think, you become. To move the world we must move ourselves.’ – Socrates, the philosopher
Every tournament I’ve ever played has had its own dynamic, become it’s own beast, dragging you in, making you it’s own. This one was no different. Playing the same two teams again and again was a challenge but they’re two of the best teams in Europe and every game was a different test, such distinct styles of play.
For some reason it caused huge excitement among our team to discover that one of our opponents had once been on Gladiators. Better-looking than, just as intimidating as, Wolf it was agreed.
I remember Roy Keane back in 2003, after Man United were eliminated 6-5 on aggregate by Real Madrid from the Champions League, talking about how in the weeks afterwards his mind was racing, full of those games. So much to think about, to process and unpick and learn from. He was fired up and inspired, already anxious for another go back at it.
That’s ultimately how I feel about this tournament, very different from last year.
Wales and England are such quality teams. To understand and stop them and try hurt them with our own attack, we did it well at times and other times not. How could you not be excited about trying to do it better?
As I discussed with one of my opponents – if you know how much it means to me to win, you need to make it mean at least that much to you too if you want to beat me. I know how hard we worked in the final and so I know how hard Wales had to work to perform and beat us.
Apparently, the final was an epic game to watch. Is that any consolation if you’ve lost?
‘Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.’ – Socrates, the footballer
The Brazil World Cup team of 1982 was one of the great, much-loved teams that never won a tournament.
I partly agree with Socrates. I want to win. But joy does matter. Personally, I felt I played better, contributed more, redeemed myself from last year. That allowed me enjoy it. I’ll remember what a pleasure it was to be part of my team. There was a lot laughter. They’re all people I admire. As our captain said, no one can take away what we created this tournament. We all go through it together. We can all feel proud about what we did. What an experience to have together and a privilege.
We are lucky to play this sport, lucky that Scotland organised this tournament and I’m very appreciative. Very appreciative to have got to play with this squad again. And I do think as a team we have stepped up from last year.
The Paradox of Success
After, ‘Sully’ Sullenberger successfully landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson with no fatalities in 2009, he was hailed as a hero. The ‘paradox’ of this success was that it was built on the failures learned from the past – detailed checklist systems developed after crashes in the 1930s, the Crew Resource Management systems established since the 70’s, the ergonomic cockpit design… Sullenberger, a humble man, sought to deflect attention away from his own heroism, ‘Everything we know and achieve in aviation, we know because we have purchased it at great human cost from cruel lessons of the past, lessons that we have to preserve, institutionalise and pass on.’
Thankfully, the consequences we face for failing to win a Touch competition are miniscule in comparison. But any organisation, sporting or otherwise, can learn from the aviation industry.
Our team has unfinished business… This loss will make us even more motivated… Maybe you have to lose a couple to win one… I’d rather lose this and win the Euros next year… We will be better for this…
Is any of that true? Maybe.
As Brian O’Driscoll said after the 2011 World Cup, ‘There’s nothing promised.’ He’s right. Just because we’ve had two disappointments doesn’t mean we deserve anything next time.
So what will our own responses, attitudes and investigations into our failure be? When the next moment of crisis comes, if we get to a final, in the last few moments and our perception narrows and we have to make a series of split second decisions, will we make more right ones?
I think we will. I think we’ll learn. And it might still not be good enough.
A few weeks after the Euros last year, I asked one of the Ireland Over 45s team, who I really respect, how his tournament had gone. He’s in his 50s now and I asked him if he’d go again for another tournament. ‘Ah, yeah,’ he said with a slow smile. ‘It’s better than the alternative… Not going again.’ I thought that was the best answer you could possibly give.
Nothing is promised but we’ll go again.