Examiner sports column 21 March 2008

March 18, 2008

Column in Irish Examiner, 21 March 2008.

Eddie pays the ultimate professional price

SO LONG to Eddie. The smallest surprise of the week was the
departure of Eddie O’Sullivan from the Ireland rugby hotseat on Wednesday night. He’d put up a brave face after the England defeat, but he must have known the writing was on the wall.

Because O’Sullivan is a professional. In the Oedipal wonderland which makes up that section of George Hook’s biography which relates to Eddie, it’s interesting that Hook describes O’Sullivan as the first real professional he met in rugby — professional in his attitude to team preparation,
professional in his attitude to preparing himself to prepare his team, professional in his contract negotiation.

When the two men met in the 90s, that was something of a revelation, as Irish
rugby left Corinthianism behind, but since then everyone has caught up. The proof of that is in the reaction to Ireland’s decline over six months or so — not so much from the media, but from the ordinary people who were less than gruntled with the underpowered performances in France in September and then in the Six Nations.

The level of dissatisfaction with recent Irish performances is, in its own way, a backhanded compliment to both the growth in rugby’s popularity in the
country and O’Sullivan’s role in driving that growth by virtue of his success with the international side.

By setting the bar higher in any sport, there’s a danger of being judged against those higher standards and found wanting, of course: thus Eddie and his removal. But that evaluation has come after a deeper cultural shift in rugby than in other sports, a willingness to criticise that’s relatively new.

Back in the fine old amateur days we wouldn’t have been quite so bloodthirsty for Eddie’s blood, a state of affairs which George Hook inadvertently touched on last Saturday when he revived the old chestnut about the state of Irish rugby being critical but never serious.

No longer. When there’s money on the line — player contracts, a redeveloped Lansdowne Road coming on stream — then the situation quite clearly can be both critical and serious. In that context Eddie will have no complaints. He knows what professional sport means; by George Hook’s account he knew it before anyone else.

BUT he may be entitled to be a little aggrieved about one aspect of criticism he’s been shipping recently, particularly when he looks at the other team sharing Croke Park in recent months.

The Republic of Ireland soccer team has also been getting a bit of a kicking from both press and public, particularly at the fag-end of Steve Staunton’s short career.

The charge sheet turned in against them — lacking in spirit and direction, being troubled by teams they should have handled without difficulty — has a lot in common with the indictments handed out against Eddie O’Sullivan’s team.

However, while Staunton was gored by all and sundry, his players also came in for withering commentary, which eventually resulted in Robbie Keane popping up on The Late Late Show to say it wasn’t nice for the players to have to listen to criticism.

Compare the Irish rugby players. There’s been a marked reluctance to criticise their pallid displays in the World Cup and Six Nations, not when there’s more mileage in berating the coach. The argument was that the Ireland manager must be the problem, particularly given the players’ fine displays for Munster and Leinster.

Yet that same logic was used as a stick to beat players like Robbie Keane: outstanding with Spurs, standing with his arms out for Ireland. The fact Keane’s club form was so good was ammunition for complaint, not body armour against criticism. It was very different for his rugby-playing cousins.

Still, that doesn’t make a difference to O’Sullivan now. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes next, and it’ll be interesting to see who replaces him.

Given the names being thrown around, it’ll also be interesting to see if anyone in 62 Lansdowne Road has Denis O’Brien’s phone number.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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