Category: Archive

Ireland: a (rugby) nation once again

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Mark Jones

Ireland 27, France 25

DUBLIN — A nation once again, a rugby nation that is.

Irish revivals in the past 20 years had routinely fizzled out and there were doubts that this season’s new wave would break long before the Six Nations championship was settled. The wipe-out was expected to take place in Paris, but last Sunday Ireland pulled off one of the country’s greatest ever sporting coups.

France may have been missing half a team through either injury or suspension, but there is no other heartland in Europe which can produce replacement players at the drop of hat. In fact, it has often been said that the French could field three or four teams in the championship, one as good as the next.

So, no ifs and buts about the opposition s’il vous plait, just luxuriate in a first win in the French capital since dim and distant March 1972 when professionalism was a dirty word and when the heroic captain Keith Wood was just three days old.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Typically, the Irish looked as if they would be run ragged in a frenzied opening, but thanks to some uncharacteristic stubborness and a few French mistakes, the game was still alive going into the final quarter.

And just when it seemed as if the players would have to digest yet another gallant failure, up stepped David Humphreys to kick the winning penalty. Sweet and significant, because it had been Humphreys, brought on as a 62nd minute substitute for Ronan O’Gara, who missed the chance to beat France last season when his vital kick drifted wide of the target.

There was absolutely no mistake this time as the ball sailed between the uprights just minutes before the sympathetic stadium announcer conceded defeat by blasting out U2 and the Pogues across northern Paris.

"Of course I thought about what had happened last year," Humphreys admitted, "and I said a little prayer as well."

It wasn’t just a triumph for the players who now have three victories under their belt with a final match against Wales at Lansdowne Road to come on April 1.

With England on their way to a Grand Slam, the inaugural Six Nations title appears to be out of Ireland’s reach, but the possibility now of a fourth win couldn’t have been contemplated a couple of months ago.

A triumph for coach Warren Gatland too. On the verge of being fired after a pathetic World Cup and again on the brink when the Irish shipped 50 points in London in early February, Gatland has transformed his team and his own fortunes.

"To win in a stadium like this when most of the people are against you is what it’s all about," Gatland said, "it doesn’t get any better than this." As head coach, he takes most of the credit, but shrewd observers are already underlining the role of his assistant coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.

Added to the ticket after the World Cup, O’Sullivan has been a key influence. Previously when Gatland ruled the roost, Ireland were unambitious and forward orientated; tries were scores supporters dreamed of. Infused by several young players, the team is now playing with real verve and imagination and already 149 points have been scored including a remarkable 13 tries.

In the heady aftermath, everyone was stressing the collective effort and certainly the gnarled veterans Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey played their parts, as did Wood, Malcolm O’Kelly, Kieron Dawson, Peter Stringer and Denis Hickie, but one player stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Take a bow Brian O’Driscoll. Carried high by his teammates from the pitch, O’Driscoll, just 21, gave one of the great masterclasses of international rugby scoring all of Ireland’s three tries with a mixture of blinding pace and opportunism.

If his tries were the glorious end product, O’Driscoll also caused enormous problems for the French defense every time he got the ball, and although criticized for his tackling in the past, this time he was a colossus. His individual performance will go down in history as one of the most stunning ever by an Irish player.

O’Driscoll’s first try after 23 minutes put Ireland in front 7-6 and despite some extreme French pressure, the visitors were only behind 13-7 at the interval. The home team had increased that lead to 19-7 when O’Driscoll pounced again after a surging Rob Henderson run and with six minutes remaining, he left the French defense in tatters for a third time.

Humphreys then kicked his vital penalty and there were no cock-ups, no tiring, no lack of concentration and no inferiority complex that had undone Ireland so often in the past.

A new dawn? Definitely.

Other Articles You Might Like

Sign up to our Daily Newsletter

Click to access the login or register cheese