A friendly or not; why begrudge Irish Rugby's success? 11 months ago

A friendly or not; why begrudge Irish Rugby's success?

Ireland defeated New Zealand 16-9 on Saturday to beat the All Blacks for just the second time in 113 years.

It was a remarkable achievement for Joe Schmidt's side.

Ireland's win handed New Zealand just their fifth defeat from their last 49 matches.

They beat a side that had won their last 20 games in Europe. They beat a side that have won the last two World Cups. They beat a side that averaged 37 points a game in the Rugby Championship and held them to just nine points, which marked the first time an All Blacks side have failed to crack double figures since the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, an 8-7 win over France – bringing an end to a run of 95 tests.

It was a masterclass by Ireland. By any conceivable metric, it was a performance that deserves immense credit, and to the sell-out crowd at the Aviva Stadium, it was cherished for everything that it was worth.

With two wins out of the last three against New Zealand, and with two very close defeats from the last five matches against the All Blacks, it's quite reasonable to think that Ireland are now the best team in world rugby for the first time in their history, a theory that is only strengthened by the fact that Ireland have also won three of the last five Six Nations titles.

The win has been praised in some circles but denigrated in others with criticism taking on all manners and forms.

'It was only a friendly. They haven't done it at a World Cup. We're celebrating being ranked second in the world'.

If the bar has been raised so high that we can only celebrate semi-final wins in World Cups or Six Nations championships and Grand Slams, where do we get off?

It's not exactly like we have a decorated history of dominating world sport, regardless of how many other teams or individuals that sport may have.

Besides, what's wrong with celebrating progress? Ireland were beaten 60-0 by New Zealand in New Plymouth just a year before Schmidt took over the job of head coach. They defeated the All Blacks in Dublin on Saturday without Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw and Sean O'Brien; three of the country's best players.

Ireland had won just one Five/Six Nations title in 30 years before Schmidt's appointment. They had won just one Grand Slam since 1948. They took the Six Nations wooden spoon in 1996, 1997 and 1998. They're still the all-time leader in championship wooden spoons with 28, seven more than Scotland. They had lost 26 out of 27 matches against New Zealand.

Irish rugby fans have been accused of losing perspective and yet for most of our rugby history we have been rubbish and now we have a team that can lay legitimate claim to being the best side in the world and they have to contend with issues of classism, friendlies, that they've never made it past a Rugby World Cup quarter-final, that they've robbed players from other countries and that there's only about eight good teams in the world.

There's only about eight good teams in hurling but try tell the Limerick hurlers that their All-Ireland win is lessened by the fact that there's only eight good teams in the country.

There were more players on the Irish football team born outside of these shores when they beat Germany in 2015 than when Ireland beat New Zealand on Saturday but try telling the footballers that their win against the 2014 World Cup winners means any less.

Even take CJ Stander and Bundee Aki, the residency rule poster boys. One was found belting out the Fields of Athenry in a Galway beer garden after Connacht's PRO12 title win in 2016 while the other literally spent hours in a room trying to nail down the words to Ambhran na bhfiann. Is that not the gold standard for people that come to this country, to embrace culture and tradition?

Ireland have beaten New Zealand, South Africa and Australia in Autumn and Summer internationals over the last year, or friendlies as they are being called. Sides that have won seven of the eight World Cups.

If Ireland beat any one of France, Germany, Spain and Italy in football friendlies at the Aviva would we scoff at it? Christ, we'd take a win over Northern Ireland at this stage. Shit, we'd even take scoring a goal by current standards.

The fact that Ireland have never made it past a Rugby World Cup quarter-final is undoubtedly a blemish on their record but realistically there's only three, potentially four of those World Cups, where they may have been expected to advance past that stage.

Their failure at the 2007 and 2015 Rugby World Cups are the headline disappointments but even in 2011 they lost to a Wales side that won the Grand Slam the following season and were a Sam Warburton red card away from being in a World Cup final at that tournament.

In 2003 they lost to France, a side that won Grand Slam titles in both 2002 and 2004.

There are many reasons people may not like rugby. There are many things about it that may rub people up the wrong way.

But to try and take something away from a side that beat the best team in the world, in a year where they won just their third Grand Slam title and their first ever series in Australia, just seems a bit miserable.

But maybe that's just who we are, or at least how we can be perceived.

Here was what LA Times columnist Andrew McCarthy noted back in 2012 when he returned to Ireland after a decade abroad.

"There are no people on Earth as romantic as the French. No one is punctual like the Swiss. The Germans have defined a sense of order. The Italians know how to eat. And no one, I mean no one, does misery like the Irish.

"Ireland’s well-chronicled story of rags to riches to rags again is a cautionary tale of the early 21st century. A country reared on hardship, famine and oppression has, after a brief turn in the economic sun, been cast back into the misty gloom of struggle."

The struggle can be real Andrew. How the rugby team's success has been treated in some quarters is just a case in point.