A SPECTACULAR VIEW Croke Park creates a stunning backdrop for a line-out during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England last Saturday. Pic: Sportsfile
O’Sullivan never fails to prepare
WOW, what an occasion. Ireland’s emphatic 43-13 victory over England last Saturday night capped what was undoubtedly the biggest day Irish rugby has ever witnessed. Heck, many would argue that it was the most significant sporting event ever staged in the country, never mind just by the IRFU.
Former captain, Keith Wood apologised more than once while commentating on events for the BBC in case he was overstating the significance of this particular game of rugby. Of course, he can be forgiven.
It was more than a game of rugby for so many reasons, reasons that have been discussed and written about in great depth over the last few weeks. Yet, despite the tension and uncertainty beforehand, when all was said and done (or more fittingly in this instance, sang and played) the feelgood factor emanating from the North side of Dublin and those with Irish blood around the world was almost tangible.
Ireland had just beaten the World champions, again, and 82,500 people had just confirmed that as a nation we have matured. With the eyes of the world on the magnificent, sparkling Croke Park, we demonstrated how proud we are, not only of where we have come from, but more who we are today.
In many ways, the development of Irish rugby reflects that of our nation. Irish teams are renowned for playing with pride and passion and plenty of it, yet while those two elements helped achieve many famous victories in the past, there was little else to draw from at times against the major nations. Style and substance were often the missing ingredients on so many more occasions.
Last Saturday’s performance, however, was one full of pride and passion but allied with a huge amount of control, discipline, intelligence and skill. Led by Brian O’Driscoll, this Irish team does not fear anyone. It no longer feels inferior.
They have suffered blows, the latest of course only two weeks ago to France, yet the manner of their response was also fitting. They could have hung their heads and felt sorry for themselves. They didn’t. They just worked harder and came back stronger.
This Irish squad is undoubtedly the best-prepared rugby team this island has ever produced. It’s well documented how meticulous Eddie O’Sullivan is in planning. ‘No stone left unturned’ is a phrase so often used but yet is perhaps never more appropriate when describing his attention to the smallest of details.
However, it has been his and his management team’s appreciation of the bigger picture that has arguably been the most important factor in this squad’s success. Last November was the first time an Irish side physically dominated a South African rugby team.
On Saturday, even though it was Ireland’s fourth successive victory over England, it was the first time Ireland won the collisions so emphatically against a team wearing the Red Rose. The men in white, who believed in their ability to physically impose themselves, never saw it coming. The bullies had become the bullied.
Of course it didn’t just happen overnight. The ten-week pre-season that members of the Irish squad now enjoy is paying dividends. Controversial when implemented and a strain on the provinces who miss their leading players for the early rounds of the Magners League, the plan, pushed by Eddie O’Sullivan and co and agreed by the IRFU, is one of the biggest contributing factors to the strides made by the squad this season.
Right across the park the men in green seemed to command the upper hand. John Hayes used his sheer size, strength and aggression to smash opponents backwards before they even sniffed the gain line. Paul O’Connell was outstanding in every department while the back-row out-muscled, out-ran and out-scavenged their opposite numbers. David Wallace’s head down, leg-pumping barge to the line for Ireland’s second try almost encapsulated in a single act the force with which the home team played.
Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll were again as disruptive in defence as they were menacing in attack with the captain again showing the strength of this Irish team when he ripped the ball off Josh Lewsey as the desperate visitors tried to counter attack from deep.
But for all the aggression and muscle on display is was imperative for Ireland to be controlled and disciplined and oh how they were. Jonny Wilkinson was limited to only three penalty shots at goal while it was ultimately his team-mate’s indiscipline that cost England dearly. Danny Grewcock once again received a yellow card, this time for a misdemeanour at a ruck, and while he was cooling down for ten minutes, Ireland racked up fourteen points to pull 23-3 ahead.
When England rallied at the start of the second half through Dave Strettle’s converted try (Harlequins erupted when the debutant scorched in at the corner) and another Wilkinson penalty to narrow the gap to 23-13, it was their indiscipline once more, a stray boot by Julian White to be exact, which allowed Ronan O’Gara to respond immediately with a penalty to settle and Irish nerves.
Ireland did not relent until the final whistle. O’ Gara and Shane Horgan combined brilliantly for the Meath man, who soared into the skies at the Canal End – reminiscent of his fellow county men John McDermott or Gerry McEntee – before touching down to score. Replacement Isaac Boss then scampered under the posts following an interception and as French referee Joel Jutge brought a halt to proceedings, Croke Park rose to loudly acclaim a resounding victory.
Afterwards, Paul O’Connell modestly accepted the man of the match award and added that the players were just determined to do the occasion justice. Brian O’Driscoll said the players wanted to thank the GAA for the massive gesture of allowing the team to play at HQ. Gracious in defeat (après les bleus) and humble in victory against the auld enemy. The players know the significance of this victory but like our nation, will strive to move forward and improve. It was sweet all the same though, wasn’t it!
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