TALKING POINT: Evidence points to an Irish choking trend

rugby18 June 2024 06:25
By:Gavin Rich
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As an appetiser for the forthcoming series between the Springboks and Ireland, which kicks off at Loftus in less than three weeks, the Vodacom United Rugby Championship semifinal at the same venue delivered in volumes.

It was a high quality game, there was tempo and there was at times frightening physicality and intensity. There was also some decidedly iffy refereeing from Sam Grove-White, who is usually much better than that. Had it not been for his aping of the 2011 villain for Bok fans, Bryce Lawrence, by letting everything go and turning a blind eye to Leinster indiscretions, the Vodacom Bulls would have won by much more than just 25-20.

In the Scot’s defence, he wasn’t helped by the TMO Ben Whitehouse, who has had a more checkered career with South African teams up to the Loftus game than the on-field referee did. But ultimately that old rugby truism, that the team with the dominant scrum tends to win the big games, held true despite the match officiating.

And for Bulls coach Jake White there was a return to his mantra from his greatest triumph as a coach, the winning of the 2007 World Cup, which is that “Defence wins trophies”. We will have to wait a few more days to find out if a trophy will result from the much improved Bulls defensive effort, for Glasgow Warriors produced an equally good defensive performance against Munster.

But what we do know is that there will be no Irish representation in the URC final, the second time in two years that has happened. Which in many eyes will mean the Boks start on the front foot at Loftus on 6 July.


Do they? There is no denying that the Irish players who played against the Bulls will have been rattled by the experience, particularly the key players in a scrum that normally is so sound but this time was engaged in back-pedal gear for most of the 80 minutes. But when Ireland coach Andy Farrell fronts the media on Wednesday to announce his squad for the tour, my money says he may speak up the experience as a good learning.

Leinster may have paid in the semifinal for sending under-strength teams to South Africa in league play. Actually they did in more than one way. Had they come to this country full strength to play the Emirates Lions and Stormers two months ago, they probably would have picked up enough points to avoid having to travel to South Africa at this stage of the competition.

Leinster’s third successive failure to advance past the semifinal stage of the URC may say as much about how hard it is to chase both Investec Champions Cup glory and URC silverware as it does about them.

When the URC kicked off, Leinster had won four successive PRO14 titles, and everyone was using them as a benchmark for the depth needed to compete on two fronts. They’d done that quite successfully up to then, and were multiple champions in both competitions.

But the URC is not the PRO14. The addition of the South African teams has significantly lifted both the competitiveness and the extent of the challenge faced (meaning crossing hemispheres and playing in Africa and at altitude etc). The claim that Leinster’s second team would finish second may have been true in the PRO14, but not in the URC. With just one win in six league games here in the URC, it is also clear their understrength team is not equipped to win in South Africa either.

As pertinently, the decision to go understrength to South Africa robbed the Leinster top players of the chance to be exposed to stadiums like Loftus. They hammered the Bulls in Dublin at Easter, but the Bulls are a very different animal in their own corral. Farrell may be pleased the Ireland international players have finally been exposed to the environment they will encounter in the first test match. He may be sorry they didn’t do it more often.


Yet there’s a wider issue around Irish rugby that might start to bother him a bit more than that. The semifinal results should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Ireland rugby is in the rudest health it has ever been from a depth viewpoint. Last year there were four Irish teams in the top eight, this season there were three in the top six of the URC.

Ireland won the Six Nations after completing a Grand Slam the year before, they are No 2 in the world rankings and won a series in New Zealand two seasons ago. Leinster have gone to three successive Champions Cup finals… There’s nothing wrong with that, many other nations would happily buy that kind of success.

There is something that the Irish fall short of though, and that is attaining the goal that they set themselves. Since the Grand Slam in the 2022/23 Six Nations, only Munster winning last year’s URC title by beating the Stormers in the Cape Town final stands out as a “mission accomplished”.

Yes, Ireland did win the most recent Six Nations, but their aim was to become the first team in the Six Nations era to complete successive Grand Slams. They looked on course to do that when they comfortably beat the next best team, France, in the opener. But then they appeared to become nervy and they ended up spitting the dummy at Twickenham, where they narrowly lost to England.

Before that was the World Cup, where they beat the eventual winners in pool play but then botched it in the quarterfinal against New Zealand. The Webb Ellis trophy was Ireland’s Holy Grail, the one they really wanted and which everything that came before that was building towards. They failed. Ireland have still not made it beyond the quarterfinal of a World Cup.


Then there’s Leinster, who include so many of the Ireland first choice players in their match day squad. They’ve been in imperious form for most of the last three Champions Cup campaigns. Until they’ve reached the final. In some of those finals, meaning the two against La Rochelle, they even led most of the way before doing what Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy did when he was in a similar position in the closing stages of last weekend’s US Open - they choked at the last.

Choking is regarded as the “big C” word in sport, and should be used sparingly, but it is hard not to consider it when you look at the names Leinster have on paper, their general form in both the Champions Cup (they’ve only been beaten in finals in the last three seasons) and the URC (they topped the log twice), and couple that with the absence of any meaningful trophy in their cabinet.


Munster did show great mettle in winning the URC by playing all their playoff games on the road last year, but even their record may speak of suspect temperament given that their best performances are often away and their worst are at home.

They were magnificent in Cape Town last year, beating the Stormers twice on their home patch, once in league play and again in the final. They were again magnificent when they came to the highveld two months ago and did what Leinster weren’t equipped to do by winning both games.

Those results ensured they had home advantage in the playoffs, and they were on the high road as opposed to the low road of 2022/23. Although they’d won eight games on the trot at that point, Munster misfired in the first half of their last league game against Ulster at Thomond Park before recovering in the second, and there were nervous aspects to their quarterfinal against the Ospreys too. They didn’t exactly blow the Welsh team away as maybe they should have on their home ground.

Against Glasgow, who thumped them comprehensively in a game where they led 28-0 at halftime in a league game at Thomond Park last season, they botched it completely. Whereas Leinster do tend to be imperious at home, until they get to a playoff game, Munster look nervous at home.

Combine all this evidence and it does suggest that while Irish rugby is strong at the moment, they’ve still got quite a few psychological barriers to get through. It’s something the Ireland coach may be thinking about as he completes his preparations for a trip to a country where Ireland have never won a series.