By Mark Jones
Wales 23, Ireland 19
DUBLIN — Predictable, really. Too much expectation, too little hope as Ireland’s rugby bubble popped resoundingly at Lansdowne Road last weekend. A 23-19 defeat by Wales in the final game of the Six Nations was probably on the cards given all the pre-game hype.
Coming off the back of three successive wins, including an historic triumph in Paris, tickets to witness an Ireland team notching up a fourth straight victory in the championship for the first time since 1948 were like gold dust.
And for the first time in a while, Corporate Ireland jumped on the bandwagon. One cellular phone company pledged £1 million to the player who could score four tries and Guinness were prepared to throw £10,000 into the pot for the player who could score a try within one minute and 30 seconds of the start (the time it takes to pull a pint of the black stuff, stupid).
So there was all this hoopla underscoring what was after all just another game. In victory, Ireland wouldn’t have won the championship anyway as England already had a vastly superior points difference. After so many years in the doldrums, the feel-good was understandable, but it was all a bit unreal.
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And after an impressive start, Ireland began to unravel. So much so that early in the second half, they trailed by 17-6.
"We played poorly in the first half," admitted captain Keith Wood. "We improved after that but we still came up short and a foot is as good as a mile."
The Irish got their act together all right with a Shane Horgan try and two Ronan O’Gara penalties which made the score 19-17. However, Wales weren’t finished. Many were mystified why one of their key players, Neil Jenkins, wasn’t in the starting lineup, but he came off the bench with a quarter of an hour to go and proceeded to calmly kick the two penalties that sunk Ireland.
"People take about complacency and overconfidence," said manager Donal Lenihan, who now departs Team Ireland to take on the job of managing next year’s Lions tour to Australia, "but I don’t think there was any question of that. You’ve got to try to take the positives out of the season."
Certainly, after a calamitous loss to England, to go on and win three of the next four games exceeded expectations. The addition of Eddie O’Sullivan to the coaching ticket made a major difference to the way the team performed and Warren Gatland is now in a strong position this week as he renegotiates his contract.
The word is he’s demanding another two years and as an organization that craves the quiet life, the IRFU is likely to accede. Whether O’Sullivan wants to continue as his assistant for two more years is another question.
Meanwhile, England were crowned champions despite losing 19-13 to Scotland in Edinburgh, and France moved ahead of Ireland into second place following their 42-31 victory over Italy in Paris.