In a tournament of six teams, grand slam is hyped term. However, given that Ireland hasn’t beaten all its opponents in a competition that effectively doubles as the European Championship since 1948, the coming weekend in Dublin will stage the most important rugby match in the country’s history.
Not so long ago, any win would’ve been good enough for the hangdog Irish, but now with a team brimful of young, emerging players, the opportunity to defeat the old enemy England in a contest of such magnitude is one to be relished.
Once again, it wasn’t as if Ireland performed at their peak in Cardiff. All season, it has been a case of not playing that well but still winning. And perversely, Sunday’s opposition have had the same experience over the last six weeks. But they are ranked the best team in the world, and the Irish will be the slightest of underdogs — could anyone ask for more?
On the back of victories against Scotland, Italy and France, the game against hapless Wales was supposed to be Ireland’s banker. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. At one stage, the game looked to have been won when the Irish wing forward Keith Gleeson drove over for his second try, but back came Wales refusing to roll over as they’d done earlier in the tournament.
As the clock ticked on agonizingly, the gap was suddenly down to a single point, but surely Ireland would hold on, surely the players wouldn’t blow their chance of a place in history. When the Wales out-half Stephen Jones kicked a towering drop goal 2 minutes into injury time to make it 24-22, it seemed as if they had.
However, from the restart, Ireland gathered the ball, and O’Gara, with ice in his veins, responded in kind to give Ireland the lead again. Compared to Jones’s effort, the kick wasn’t a thing of beauty. It rose and dived like a wounded duck until it finally crept over the bar. 25-24.
That definitely was that. An unconvincing Irish performance, saved by O’Gara . . . but no, there was more. Wales had time for one more attack and, incredibly, Jones set himself one more time for another drop goal attempt. He launched the kick, but Denis Hickie, like the sprinter he was once, ran and dived to block the kick down.
“There was a lot of nervousness out there,” admitted Ireland’s coach, Eddie O’Sullivan. “I’d hate for people to think we took Wales for granted. They knew the importance of this game and it put huge pressure on them knowing they could be one game away from the Grand Slam.”
With Victor Costello, who was badly missed following a calf injury, sure to return along with Gary Longwell for the England game, O’Sullivan has just one other selection headache. Should he persist with Humphreys, who lacks the physical presence to trouble England, or go with the hero O’Gara, who is a better all-round playmaker?
He’s likely to stick with Humphreys, but don’t be surprised if O’Gara is not introduced early in the second half if the game is not going according to plan. England have missed out on three Grand Slams in recent seasons, and logic points to their victory on Sunday. But Ireland now have a strange momentum, and a partisan crowd can make a difference.