Ireland realise a Grand ambition
SIXTY-ONE years of hoping and dreaming. Well, 61 years, four matches, 79 minutes and 57 seconds to be exact. Hoping and dreaming can only get you so far!
With the match clock about to tick into the red, Irish heads were bowed. Those of the green persuasion across the world weren’t so much dreaming of victory as praying for divine intervention. When Welsh out-half Stephen Jones stepped up to attempt a match-winning penalty just inside the Irish half, once again, to borrow a phrase from George Hamilton, ‘A nation held its breath’!
Jones’ attempt dropped short and nobody, including Geordan Murphy who caught the ball under his own posts knew exactly what to do. Nobody apart from Paul O’Connell, that is, who seemed to be on the front foot and one step ahead of the action all afternoon. So he was already halfway up the pitch jumping and punching the air in delight! Murphy ran across the dead ball area, hoofed the ball high into the stands and a country went bananas!
With all the great rugby players Ireland have produced throughout the years, it’s hard to fathom that it has been 61 years since Ireland last reigned supreme in Europe.
It was 1948 when a Jack Kyle and Karl Mullen inspired Irish side could rightfully claim to be the best the Northern hemisphere had to offer.
Of course, we’ve had our fair share of dark days and wooden spoons in the intervening years, but it’s even harder to explain the lack of success when you consider the nation’s most recent history in the championship.
It is a bizarre fact that although Ireland have won more games in the competition than every other team bar France (36 wins apiece) since the Five Nations became Six with the inclusion of Italy a decade ago, we have seen nine other teams lift the trophy. Five of those nine teams conquered all in Grand Slam years!
And yet, when you bear in mind the fact that we have far less numbers playing the game in Ireland than the big three of France, England and, of course, Wales (where rugby is the number one sport), you’d be forgiven if you felt we have actually been punching above our weight for all these years.
Why has it taken so long to finally bridge the gap from 1948? God knows there have been a few missed opportunities and none more recently than 2007 when Vincent Clerk broke Irish hearts with a try in injury time as the French spoiled the opening of Croke Park.
But you only have to look at last Saturday’s epic encounter at the magnificent Millennium Stadium to see how hard it is to win a top-level international rugby match, never mind five on the trot. Both sides refused to yield, physically or mentally. Right from the first whistle to the last there was an unbreakable willingness on both sides to fight for every ball, every advantage and every inch.
If caught with the ball on your own, and even a fraction of a yard away from your allies, you were in trouble. Every breakdown and tackle area was contested with such intensity and ferocity that turnovers and holding-on penalties against the attacking team was a common feature throughout the game.
Ireland, predominantly through Paul O’Connell, who pilfered numerous Welsh throws, ruled the line-outs but Wales held the slight advantage in the scrum.
They also looked the more likely winners at half-time thanks to two Jones penalties but Ireland stormed back and into the lead through two quick-fire tries before Wales could even draw breath in the second half.
The first came thanks to the strength and power of the forwards and captain Brian O’Driscoll whose low pick and leg drive was, yet again, inspirational, while the second was due to the pace and precision of Tommy Bowe and Ronan O’Gara respectively.
No doubt the video analysis of the Welsh defence from midfield scrums highlighted Shane Williams’ tendency to rush up out of the line in order to shut the space down from the outside early so a bit of homework during the week played its part in that particular try also.
Then, of course, there has to be an ability to maintain your discipline and composure in the heat of battle. It is a hell of a lot easier to talk about it than it is to do it!
Ireland allowed Wales back into the game as the penalty count began to go against them. Stephen Jones narrowed the margin to one before Wales showed just how good they could be. With ten minutes to go they seemed to up the pace.
Mike Phillips darted through the middle of the line-out and bulldozed through three ‘would-be’ tacklers before being stopped just short of the line. Ireland regrouped and held firm initially but were then powerless to stop Jones who sat back into the pocket to kick a drop goal.
Wales were back in front with four minutes to go. A lack of composure from Wales, however, gifted Declan Kidney’s team a great opportunity immediately after the restart when Jones kicked straight out on the full resulting in an Irish line-out deep inside the Welsh 22. There was only ever going to be one option. Stringer to O’Gara. Drop goal. Game over. Or so we thought.
With less than two minutes on the clock remaining Wales restarted. Would Ireland pick and drive to kill the game off? A risky option inside their own half considering referee Wayne Barnes penalised the attacking team a lot through out the game. Would O’Gara find the safety of the touchline with the belief that O’Connell and co could rob one more Welsh throw? Lose it though and the home side had an ideal platform from which to launch one last attack and a drop goal of their own. O’Gara kicked long and Wales were going to have to build from deep. And then came ‘that’ penalty.
So, why such a long wait? On other occasions throughout the last 61 years a Stephen Jones from France or England or Scotland stepped up and nailed that kick.
On other occasions throughout the last 61 years that little chip kick for the winger bounced into the full back’s hands instead of those belonging to an Irish winger or there was no video ref to rule that the ball brushed three blades of white painted grass on the try line for the briefest of moments before being repelled backwards again.
In other years this might not have happened once, but twice, in a game or in a season. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you have got to make your own luck. Over the last five weeks of action this Irish team has certainly given everything to the cause and deserve all the rewards.