But if we’re not yet entirely sure if it’s here to stay, that mindset has changed. South Africa pitched up at Lansdowne Road last weekend missing nine or 10 of their leading players who were either injured or resting, and on that basis, the home supporters weren’t going to be content with anything less than a win.
And how Ireland delivered. Admittedly, it wasn’t a perfect performance, but there was still so much confidence and swagger about this 32-15 victory that those depressing days of underachievement seem aeons ago now.
Even if this wasn’t the traditional hulking, arrogant South Africa who emerged from apartheid and rugby isolation to win the World Cup in 1995, the Irish were always going to have a contest on their hands. That part of the bargain was over by half time at which stage they led by 22-3, and if the second half had one or two glitches, the success was eventually as emphatic as the scoreline suggested.
“Sure, beating South Africa was right up there, one of our best performances,” said Paul O’Connell who had yet another powerful game in the second row, “but you have to keep it in perspective. They were missing a lot of players and maybe their defence was in a small bit of disarray. We were very good, but what we were saying afterwards was that we have to keep it in perspective.”
Wise words to be sure, however, that perspective is now an extremely positive one. With World Cup holders England in freefall – their 25-18 defeat by Argentina in London was their seventh in a row – and with France pulverised 47-3 by a rampant New Zealand, Ireland can stake a claim to be ranked the number one team in Europe.
With games at Croke Park early next year against both France and England, if Ireland’s form continues on an upward curve, they are likely to be installed as favorites for the Six Nations championship.
Players like the supremely gifted Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Ronan O’Gara, Shane Horgan, David Wallace, and of course O’Connell himself are all maturing into world-class players around the same time, and with Andrew Trimble and Denis Leamy the pick of the younger guard, the short term future has never looked as good.
And with the team essentially made up of Munster’s forwards, and most of the Leinster back line, there are also plenty of combinations which are now tried and tested.
As ever, there are weaknesses. The scrum, where the balance of a big game can so easily tilt, is not as strong as it should be, and if coach Eddie O’Sullivan was hit by injuries to several key players, the reserves – unlike mighty New Zealand who can field two teams of almost equal merit – are not in abundance.
After the frustration of losing both tests in New Zealand last summer, O’Driscoll has been insisting that Ireland can no longer be satisfied with being nearly men. “We learned from those defeats, and we took it out on South Africa.”
There is optimism everywhere, and D’Arcy – who was man of the match against South Africa – went as far as to say that the team’s ambition is to win next year’s World Cup. “We want to get better and better,” he said, “we want momentum, we want to win the World Cup.”
Unlike O’Connell’s cautionary note, D’Arcy’s enthusiasm might not have been the most advisable with another game against a strong Australia at Lansdowne Road this Saturday. But then, not so long ago, D’Arcy would have been led away by a couple of men in white coats after his comments.
Dunne proves his worth
The void since Wayne McCullough, Steve Collins and Barry McGuigan has been hard to fill, but it seems that Bernard Dunne could succeed where others have failed. Last weekend, 7,000 fans packed out the Point in Dublin to cheer Dunne to a European superbantamweight title victory over England’s Esham Pickering.
That was the first part of his manager’s bargain. Brian Peters had said that Dunne would fight for a European title in 2006, and a world title in 2007. So, even headier days could be ahead.
At 26, Dunne if far from the finished article despite the judges awarding him a unanimous decision over 12 demanding rounds. If his tough opponent finished the fight nursing a severely bloodied nose which had turned the referee’s white shirt crimson, Dunne also bore the marks of a battle.
“No doubt it was my hardest fight,” said the 26-year-old who became the first Dubliner to win a European crown in his home city, “but I think I belong at this level, and I’ll improve.”
In his 21 previous fights, Dunne had been occasionally accused of showboating – understandable given the quality of some of the opposition – but this was a much more stern examination as Pickering stayed the course. Eventually, as Dunne continued to accumulate points, the Englishman’s only recourse was a knockout.
It was the first time Dunne had been taken the distance, and Pickering insisted that the verdict was closer than the official line. “If you look at his face, he’s banged up, isn’t he? He was in a fight, it was closer than the judges had it.”
Whatever about that, this win was another important step in the Dubliner’s burgeoning career. There even been suggestions that some time in the future, he could headline the first fight in Croke Park since Muhammad Ali fought Al Blue Lewis in 1972. While others would no doubt claim that there have been plenty of fights in the GAA headquarters since ’72, the idea shows how highly Dunne is regarded.
“Bernard has proved to the world that he’s a good fighter,” said his manager Peters. “He’ll go on and prove that he’s a greater fighter and bring a world title to Dublin.”
For once in the boxing firmament, not a word of hype.
GAA issues bans for criticism
In the wake of the International Rules fiasco, with the GAA occupying the space at the very top of the moral high ground in its unbending criticism of the Australians’ thuggery, things ain’t so good for the association closer to home.
You might remember the recent Galway hurling final in which Loughrea sensationally upset the defending All Ireland club champions Portumna. Well, despite the fact that Loughrea deserved some credit for their surprise victory, the game was marred by a number of violent incidents.
Suffice to say that by all accounts Loughrea were the aggressors, and that Portumna’s teenage star, Joe Canning, was clearly targeted. Allegedly stamped on by an opponent, Canning was later so disgusted by Loughrea’s tactics that there were suggestions that he would quit hurling to concentrate on rugby.
There was so much adverse publicity surrounding the final, that the Games Administration Committee of the GAA saw fit to mount an investigation, and its deliberations were made public last week much to Portumna’s outrage.
In the end, only a single Loughrea player was suspended – Johnny Dooley received a four-week ban – however, one of Canning’s brothers, Davy, was handed a 12-week suspension for striking with the hurl, and two of the team’s mentors, Sean Treacy and Jimmy Heverin, were each banned for eight weeks for discrediting the GAA with their comments in the media.
While Loughrea manager, Pat O’Connor, said he felt vindicated by the GAC’s findings, adding that the after-match controversy had “completely tarnished our victory,” there was incredulity on the part of Portumna that the alleged stamp on Joe Canning had gone unpunished, and that Loughrea had escaped so lightly.
So much so, that the Sunday Tribune reported that both Joe and Ollie Canning were so disillusioned with the GAC’s findings that they were thinking of opting out of the Galway county panel next year.
But if anything, the suspensions given to Treacy and Heverin for their criticism of the referee and the Galway hurling board have caused even more outrage in the Portumna camp.
It seems that the GAA, Ireland manager Sean Boylan, and several players saw fit to lambaste the Australians after that dreadful second International Rules test at Croke Park, but when a couple of its own decide to speak out against on-pitch violence, they are censured.
Meanwhile, the purveyors of intimidation and foul play continue to cause their own brand of havoc on the GAA’s pitches.