Saturday, March 19, 2011


Professional rugby union has evolved into so much more than an 80-minute slosh in the mud at the weekend. It’s now a process that begins the previous Monday morning.

As well as all the general work to be done on the training pitch and in the weights room, there’s DVDs to be analysed, charts to be drawn and top-secret code sequences to be created.

But when all is said and done, the real work behind everything associated with a team begins in just one square foot of real estate…the noggin of the head coach.

And for me, the most satisfying aspect of Ireland’s slam-denying victory at the Aviva Stadium was that it was clearly the culmination of a superior week’s preparation from Declan Kidney, who totally outfoxed his opposite number.

Pundits often pour over a replay of a match looking for that “pivotal moment”, and they could find several from Saturday evening in Dublin. There was our opening scrum, when despite having a much lighter pack we laid down a marker by not just winning our own ball but heaving them into oblivion in the process. There was of course Tommy Bowe’s try after quick thinking from his outhalf. There was of course Ben Youngs’ moment of madness. There was the way Nick Easter desperately hoofed the ball into touch to end the first half despite being already so far behind on the scoreboard.

I reckon the true pivotal moment came on Thursday evening when Martin Johnson gave a press conference after his team arrived in Dublin. He tried to suggest the real pressure was on Ireland, but I believe he was speaking volumes for his own state of mind.

Anyone who had watched Ireland’s previous four matches would have predicted Ronan O’Gara to start on Saturday. And no doubt on Monday morning, Johnson and his team were doing just that and beginning their six-day turnaround plans accordingly.

Then comes 1:30pm on Wednesday, and calm as ever, Kidney informs the nation that in actual fact it was Sexton who would be wearing Number 10, and when pressed by reporters, gave a classic response for him that went something like “ah, sure, just wanted to give him a go”.

Well I’d love to have been a fly on the wall wherever Johnson was, at least one that was out of reach of his swinging fist. THAT is when we first had England on the back foot, and we never looked back.

And to those who feel Sexton wasn’t worthy of the “man of the match” award, I say this…take a look back at the footage when the announcement was made. See his expression as the camera is practically shoved up his nose while he’s on the bench. He can barely contain his pride, and given how his 16 caps have gone for Ireland so far plus the importance of this match, I can’t think of anyone who deserved it more. Ireland may have been impressive all over the park, but if one had to be singled out, it did our future the power of good for it to be him.

But I can’t let a match writeup go by without mentioning the inspired performance from our boys. Healy and Ross steadying the scrum. Rory Best voracious in the loose. Our legendary Munster second row wreaking havoc on England’s phase construction. O’Brien making his trademark runs. David Wallace making his trademark steals. Heaslip and Reddan combining so well off the scrums. Our makeshift back three joining the line at just the right time. Our centres keeping the door firmly shut.

I want to especially mention Keith Earls. In my book the World Cup number 11 jersey is his. I think he came into his own over the last few matches by letting himself go and deciding to just run as hard as he can with possession (pic) until he’s stopped with a chip and chase as his only option, and when you can find perfect lines as well as he does, every team needs at least one player like that in their lineup.

And of course I have to also mention Ronan’s perfect cameo. I was among those saying how ridiculous it was to change your outhalf at 60 minutes, but to do so nearer to the 70-minute-mark makes a world of difference. It was almost as though the Dublin weather was in tune with what Ireland needed and let loose the rain signalling O’Gara to come on and unleash some vintage torpedoes into the corner to bring home the bacon. And sure didn’t he even get into a bit of handbags with Chris Ashton for good measure! “Don’t see ya divin’ much today, langer!”

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Captain Fantastic himself. In the years to come you can challenge people with this trivia question : “What Irishman has scored three tries in Dublin against England, all in different stadiums?” I doubt even the most sceptical tweeter could fault the role played by the skipper – he was clearly part of the brains trust behind this monumental team performance and the only negative was that he made his own boots all the harder to fill once he hangs them up.

Of course there are doubters out there who are going : “Why the hell couldn’t they play like that in the previous four matches?” That is a valid point, but I sure as hell don’t want to get stuck in the mud thinking like that going forward. It has been clear we had this performance in us, and if we can produce the goods on an occasion as big as a Grand Slam decider, I for one believe we can do it on the World Cup stage.

So as I hang my green jersey back in the wardrobe until the August warmups, I feel my faith in the Irish rugby setup, which I freely admit was wavering after Cardiff last week, has been fully restored.

As for England, well, they are worthy Six Nations Champions, but give Johnson his due he admitted to Ireland’s superiority on the day and thus did not deserve the grandest of accolades the tournament offers. Much like the other five nations, he has a lot of time to spend at the drawing board before he can feel he’s ready to win the Webb-Ellis trophy for the second time down under.

Also this weekend…

In the main body of my writeup I mentioned a future trivia question regarding Brian O’Driscoll…well another one was produced on Saturday. Some day down the line you can pose this puzzler : “Which team beat France but still got the dreaded Six Nations wooden spoon?” Although that was a heart-breaking end to the tournament for the Italians, nobody can take their famous victory a week before away from them and besides, just as a Grand Slam wasn’t earned by any nation, it would have been tough on the Scots, particularly their coach Andy Robinson, who it could be said was “gripped” by the emotion of it all! Meanwhile in Paris, well, let’s just say both teams will be kicking themselves. Wales may have had a lot to do to win the Championship but it was still there to be won and it looked like they gave up before they started. Meanwhile Marc Lièvremont mightn’t be the most conventional rugby coach in Test history, but even he knows the trophy he won last year could have easily been retained with the tiniest amount of extra effort in either of their two losses. It was an extremely poor tournament all round but I expect much more from all six nations once September rolls around.
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