There had been some idle speculation that the British government might have made a gesture before last weekend’s rugby international between Ireland and England at Croke Park to commemorate the 14 people shot dead by the Black and Tans at the GAA headquarters in 1920. In the end, sense prevailed. It was after all a game, and not a political rally.
Then, in the wake of Ireland’s thunderous victory, there was some idle speculation that the Irish government might lay a wreath to commemorate the 15 English players massacred at Croke Park on Feb. 24, 2007.
The fact that years of mistrust, rivalry and, dare we mention the word, oppression, were reduced to a touch of black humor, said as much as needed to be said about the off-the-pitch significance of the occasion.
England’s 7,000 or so supporters sang “God Save the Queen” with no hint of a heckle or a jeer from the massed ranks of Irish. Then 75,000 voices belted out
“Amhrann na bhFiann.” Nearby, a Londoner whose mother was Irish, was unashamedly word perfect with both anthems. It was that sort of day. Then one or two of the players in green wiped a tear away, and simply got on with the match.
To be honest, there was a slight fear during the build-up that a few time-warped idiots might cause some trouble. All that materialized was a peaceful Republican Sinn Fein protest whose members were apparently aghast at the playing of the British anthem at Croke Park.
One protestor held up a placard saying “No to Foreign Games” but when it was pointed out that he was wearing a Glasgow Celtic soccer jersey, he suddenly became easier to ignore.
Not surprisingly, inside the stadium the atmosphere had moved up a notch from the game against France a fortnight before. On the back of that bitterly disappointing result, there was a palpable unease that Ireland might blow it once again. It wasn’t a vintage England team, nothing resembling the purring machine which had won the World Cup in 2003, but it was still England with a couple of Six Nations championship wins already to their credit.
As befitted the occasion, the Irish cast aside all the doubts that had surfaced during the defeat by the French. This was Ireland full of controlled fury, full of elegance, and perhaps more important than anything, full of confidence. The 43-13 victory was a record win over the English. Right time, right place.
As a resurgent Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and David Wallace led the assault, England could only scratch their heads in wonder. The prospect of their much-vaunted playmaker, Jonny Wilkinson, putting a spanner in the works was soon dim and distant.
The visiting coach, Brian Ashton, was asked for his reaction. “We were stuffed,” he said. “And that doesn’t happen very regularly in international rugby.”
Ten years, as professional rugby was going through some serious teething problems, Ashton had been coach of Ireland for a short, but highly unproductive period. He wanted the game played in a certain way, however, the Irish hearts and minds weren’t ready for his progressive plan.
Last Sunday, he might have cast a wistful eye as his team was comprehensively scuppered by the sort of irresistible rugby he had wanted to play back in 1997. He hitched his wagon to Ireland at the wrong moment, and now it seems as if he has done the same with England.
O’Connell had been criticized in the past two matches for not reaching his own elevated standards, but this time he was immense. A towering presence at restarts and at the line out, he looked a class apart as the English forwards trailed in his considerable wake.
“He is our heartbeat, he just drives and drives us on,” said the prop John Hayes. Coach Eddie O’Sullivan felt O’Connell had had a “monster game” while the man himself explained the all the players had “wanted to do the occasion justice”.
If O’Connell was the inspiration, O’Driscoll’s return following injury could not have been underestimated. Ireland’s brilliant captain attracted English defenders like moths to a lamp light, and in so doing, he created some precious space for Shane Horgan and Girvan Dempsey.
Ahead by 23-3 at the interval, the Irish weathered a mini revival by their opponents early in the second half before storming on to a victory which probably would have been even more humiliating for England if the conditions weren’t so sodden.
“I think it was an inexperienced English team,” said coach O’Sullivan generously. “The only way to gain experience is by going through the grinder of international rugby. They had been playing well, but to come into Croke Park, into a cauldron like that, and deliver is very tough. You can’t buy experience, you’ve just got to live it.”
The Irish players gained some kudos for not indulging themselves in a lap of honor afterwards, but that praise was misplaced. It was tantamount to praising someone for not robbing a bank. What was impressive though was their humility in victory.
While the Ireland soccer team appear to be consumed by what they see as their self-importance, their rugby counterparts comes across as grounded people who appreciate the supporter they have earned.
“We didn’t want to overdo it,” O’Driscoll explained. “We let ourselves down by not putting in an 80-minute performance against France.” The captain and his colleagues are acutely aware that they have won nothing yet. France are strong favorites to claim the championship, and probably the Grand Slam as well. O’Driscoll knows that France are now exactly where Ireland wanted to be.
The two remaining championship games are away from home against Scotland and Italy, and there is just a slight chance of emerging triumphant especially if England can recover their wounded pride enough to somehow defeat the French in London.
It is too early to say that Ireland are on course for the World Cup in the autumn, but there were signs during last weekend’s joyous rout that O’Driscoll, O’Connell and company have closed the gap on New Zealand.
Meanwhile, in the sporting crucible that Croke Park has already become, it will become ever harder to beat the Irish.
Shels spiral downwards
As the sport of rugby rides a wave, these have been much darker days for Irish soccer. As if the current fortunes of the international team and its beleaguered manager, Steve Staunton, aren’t at a serious enough low, there has been recent speculation that Shelbourne – one of the country’s most famous clubs – could be going out of business.
With 112 years of history behind, Shelbourne should have been anticipating the coming season with all the optimism of reigning league champions. But since that won that title, the club’s affairs have spiraled out of control.
First, a crippling financial situation meant that Shelbourne’s players weren’t being paid, and because of that failure to meet wage demands, the players were allowed to seek alternative contracts elsewhere, and the club was demoted from the Premier to the First Division.
Secondly, a possible rescue deal ran into difficulties to such an extent that the club’s interim chairman, Gary Brown, decided he had no option but to resign.
In the meantime, a new manager, the vastly experienced Dermot Keely, has been appointed, but if the club fails to clear its debts over the next few weeks to the satisfaction of the League’s administrators, there is also the possibility that demotion from the First Division – and virtual extinction – will follow.
Reflecting on his appointment as manager, Keely told the Sunday Indpendent: “There’s no logic to this. I’m a fairly intelligent person but when you put down all the pros and cons, to take on this job is nothing short of lunacy. But then it won’t be the first time I’ve been accused of lunacy.”
As for signing players, Keely wasn’t overly optimistic: “I have some names of players who might be around; at this stage beggars can’t be choosers.”
Not so long ago, Shelbourne were the choosers.