High Expectations And The Changing Nature Of Irish Sport on
Saturday August 19, 2017
   // High Expectations And The Changing Nature Of Irish Sport

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, being punished for his deceitfulness, was compelled to roll a boulder uphill for eternity only to watch the rock slide down the slope every time he reached the summit. If you want to similarly creatively chasten an Irish person, you could arrange that they must watch the frantic denouement to Ireland’s 2014 Six Nation’s campaign over and over without ever getting the relief of Steve Walsh’s final whistle.

It’s one of the oddities of sport that high stakes occasions like the one we saw on Saturday in Paris (for the invested viewer anyway) is probably one of the least enjoyable experiences there is. The wait while Walsh tried to find any reason to allow France’s late score in the corner was particularly tortuous. Nerves ruin the experience of actually watching the contest. With that much on the line, it’s all about the pay-off once the right result is secured.

We didn’t just care so much because the fitting farewell to number thirteen was at stake. One felt the entire fate of the future of this group of players was in the balance. Had Doussain nailed his kick or Papé not butchered his pass, it would have been the second heartbreaking late defeat in a number of months. The psychological damage inflicted could well have been too great to ever recover from. It would have been yet another occasion the Irish rugby team couldn’t live up to exalted expectations.

The traditional refrain of Irish sport is that we’re useless as favourites. Being an Irish sportsperson once required the mastering of a complex challenge to have confidence but also talk your chances down, painting yourself as the plucky underdog. Could this be why so often our competitors in the international arena failed when the big occasion came or failed to capitalize and secure more triumphs after initial successes?

Our beloved footballers under Jack Charlton followed up the quarter-final appearance in 1990 by failing to qualify for Euro ’92. They beat Italy first up in the USA but then lost to Mexico, eventually exciting meekly to Holland. Sonia O’Sullivan was a World Champion in 1995 but failed in Atlanta a year later. Eamon Coughlan too won a world title but agonizingly came fourth in two Olympic Games.

The rugby team was and perhaps still is the finest example of this problem. The All-Blacks performance came when most people expected us to ship 40 points or more. In 2011 we went into the World Cup wondering could we be knocked out in the group stage by a dangerous Italian side. We then beat Australia, expectations were raised and we exited with a whimper against Gatland’s Wales. The previous World Cup in France saw us exit in the group stage in what may be, along with Euro 2012, the biggest Irish sporting letdown of this century. 2009 aside, the Irish team continually came up short when it came to capturing silverware.

Outside of the Irish rugby team though, something in the Irish psyche seem to change around the mid-2000′s. Munster won a Heineken Cup and then won another two years later. Leinster then managed three in four years. Both sides dealt with the pressure of being favoured week in week out season after season. They were able to follow success with success. In other sports too, individuals were not satisfied with being one-hit wonders. Padraig Harrington backed up his British Open success in 2007 with two more majors in 2008. The Irish cricket team usually only make the news when they topple a major nation but what many don’t realise is that they win almost every competitive match they play against other associate countries and have done so for nearly a decade.

No one was more set up for a fall with the ‘favourites’ curse than Katie Taylor entering London 2012. The Bray boxer was a multiple World and European champion and from the moment Women’s boxing was announced as being in the Olympic programme the country had ticked her off in their heads as a gold medallist. Has an Irish athlete or team ever been under so much pressure to deliver on a favourites tag? We waited with trepidation for something to go wrong but she serenely delivered on her golden promise. The male boxers followed up three medals in 2008 with another treble four years later.

So while all around Irish sport high expectations was not the death knell it once seemed to be, except alas, for the rugby team. But that is why Saturday’s victory may well be cathartic in the extreme. To go to Paris as (admittedly slight) favourites with a championship to play for and win may solve a few psychological bugbears simultaneously. First of all it breaks the Paris hoodoo, it then answers the the questions about our trophy cabinet being more bare than it should be and it shows they can win with an expectant country behind them.

The challenge now is, as Taylor and Harrington did, and what the Leinster players have done with their province, is to win and win again. This didn’t happen after the Grand Slam but the signs are good, Paul O’Connell after the game was actually disappointed it had ended on such a tight margin. Joe Schmidt too, began talking about the road ahead. First in our World Cup pool and a tilt at a semi final place (and maybe beyond) is an achievable goal and with the Kiwi at the helm, we can be sure that’s what we will aim for.

Twelve years ago in Saipan, part of Keane’s ranting and raving was about the fact that no one in the camp seemed to believe that Ireland could go and achieve something special at a World Cup. At the time to many it seemed like he was speaking a foreign language. But sports people like O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Schmidt, Trent Johnston, Billy Walsh and Katie Taylor have arrived on the scene and helped effect a sea-change in the attitude of Irish sport. The days of us reveling in the role of the plucky underdog are over. We no longer fear winning and with high performance sport so often being decided by the little detail that may well just make all the difference.

Conor Hayes

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