Sneering is one of the occupational hazards of journalism. It is also one of the most inexcusable. For no one ever sneered without intending to amuse some by hurting others.
Which was no doubt what, subconsciously, I had in mind in 1992, when writing what is called a ‘colour story' about the Ireland-Wales game.
Colour stories are usually penned by the technically ignorant, but adjectivally incontinent. One of the many Irish players who had an off-day that afternoon was Brendan Mullin (below). Some of you might not remember the name. Let me try to be adjectivally continent here. Brendan was simply the greatest Irish back for a span of about 20 years: say, between Mike Gibson and Brian O'Driscoll. He had a wonderful eye for an opening, was fast and as graceful as gazelle, but tackled like a tiger. He was fearless and brave, loyal and true, a born officer and a natural gentleman. He served his country through thick and thin: a more admirable player has never worn the green shirt.
And yet, in my colour story, I sneered at this honourable player for having had a poor match. I have done many things I am not proud of as a journalist, but that has to be one of the most contemptible. All I can say in my defence is I did not consciously set out to sneer: but clearly, my subconscious did.
What follows is not a sneer, no matter how it might read. Last Saturday's match did not result in a victory for the stronger team. For it was, primarily, a victory of the Irish subconscious. Ireland did not want to win — and Declan Kidney did not choose a team that could win. His selection of Ronan O'Gara said as much.
For the past couple of years, opposing teams have focused on attacking through the channel where he stands. Everyone knows his defence is weak.
He is not a Brendan Mullin or a Brian O ’Driscoll or a Mike Gibson.
Somewhere in the opposing back line was Bastareaud, who is less a human being than a tsunami on legs. Teams playing France must not tackle him so much as lawfully incapacitate him. Jonathan Sexton might have done that. Ronan O'Gara was as likely to do it as Kate Moss.
A team that had been selected to win would not have had a half back partnership of O'Gara and O'Leary, especially after it became clear the scrum-half was having a nightmare to match his out half's. Ireland's true strength lay in our wonderful backs. If you choose out-halves that are incapable of giving them quick ball, then you are doing the French's job for them. So, too, is needlessly reducing team strength to 14, courtesy of Cian Healy's essay in idiocy.
And no team that wanted to win would ever have contained a player who clearly felt authorised to perform a foul as truly stupid, brutal and criminal as Jerry Flannery's trip on Palisson. Flannery should have been sent off, if not by the referee, then by Declan Kidney, and told to sit in the bus until it was time to go to the airport.
He should also have been told not to bother looking at Irish squad selections for a couple of years. Pour encourager les autres, as Monsieur Bastareaud might have put it.
As it was, a possibly kickable Irish penalty was reversed, and the French penalty led to a try: a 10-point foul. You can only give the French 10 points if, deep down, you prefer defeat. And opting to retain the O'Gara-O'Leary combination until 10 minutes from the end, and not to go for a goal with a penalty under the posts is such stupid decision making as to constitute a declaration: We are not serious here. We do not want to win. The question is: why?
What causes a people to behave so dysfunctionally as to make failure inevitable? Alas, it is a common Irish characteristic: more common than we admit. For we are comfortable with failure. It's a familiar condition and it suits us. Even a natural winner like Declan Kidney can be subconsciously drawn by its allure. We see the pathology of defeatism throughout the administration of our country. Indeed, is not political violence — and the reverence we show it — evidence of a preference for malfunctionalism?
Were our inevitably suicidal economic policies of the past decade not proof that we sought failure? Do we not repeatedly seek refuge in formulas we subconsciously must know cannot work, but then blame the inevitable failure on something other than our own preference for it?
Last season's Grand Slam was the aberration — and please remember, we nearly forfeited it with a needless penalty in the last seconds of the final match, which the Welsh would probably have converted had Gavin Henson kicked it. So the following doesn't make for pleasant reading; but the Irish team that lost in France really was representing Ireland.