Michael Clark was impressed with Ireland’s victory over France last Saturday but is not quite ready to anoint the men in green as likely 6 Nations champions.
It’s tough being a sports columnist who is charged with making predictions week after week. Nine days ago, I was within 35 seconds of another Superbowl prediction coup as the unfancied Arizona Cardinals held a precarious three-point lead. Sadly, a late Pittsburgh touchdown consigned my prediction to the pundits’ scrapheap. Even more sadly, it’s an undeniable fact of sport that, more often than not, the plucky underdog succumbs to defeat at the hands of the bigger, richer favourite. The hare generally beats the tortoise.
My last article was suspiciously silent on the 6 Nations Championship. I must confess that this silence was as a result of genuine uncertainty as to how events would unfold. Over the last few months, I have seen and heard keen rugby fans skulking in corners and indulging in furtive bouts of whispering. Their heresy: they thought that Ireland stood a great chance of winning the Championship for the first time since 1985.
Such optimism was almost taboo in this overarching climate of gloom and doom that has engulfed Irish society. The Irish rugby team had become a metaphor for the failures that beset Irish society as a whole. The team promised much, yet delivered precious little. The hype surrounding the team in the late O’Sullivan era was based on little more than over-optimistic hope and conjecture. The crash was swift and terrible as Ireland were embarrassed in the 2007 World Cup and 2008 Championship.
Declan Kidney’s reign began inauspiciously against New Zealand in November and the victory over Argentina a week later did little to restore confidence. Yet in retrospect, it now appears that the green shoots of recovery were sprouting amidst the turgid rugby on display. If anything, those shoots were intangible and difficult to discern. No new amazing talents were unearthed, no revolutionary tactics were displayed, yet an amazing thing happened. Ireland won a match they were predicted to win when the pressure was on.
Much the same happened against France last Saturday. On paper, Ireland was the better team and was playing at home in front of 77,000 supporters. Most of their players had just secured qualification for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup and no talismanic players were injured. In short, there were no plausible excuses for defeat. In the past, the tag of favourites would have been fatal for Ireland. Last Saturday, Ireland the hare beat the (admittedly quite fast) French tortoise.
I watched the match from the back row of Hill 16 and noted the nerves of the supporters arrayed around me. The cocky French visitors’ cries of ‘Allez les Bleus!’ often drowned out the anaemic renditions of ‘The Fields of Athenry’. French rugby supporters are used to beating Irish rugby teams and showed none of the fear that clearly gripped the Irish fans. The joy unleashed by players and supporters alike at Ireland’s tries were genuine and spontaneous eruptions of relief.
I was as delighted by Ireland’s victory as everybody but can’t join in the chorus of unadulterated praise as many other pundits have done. I think Ireland contrived to make the game closer than it should have been through some misdirected tactical kicking and poor tackling. Perhaps my vantage point in Hill 16 gave an erroneous impression but for me, France looked dangerous on nearly every single counter-attack that they launched from deep.
Quite why the French back three were served up a constant diet of counter-attacking possession was something of a mystery. Tomas O’Leary, Ronan O’Gara, Paddy Wallace and Rob Kearney turned aimless kicking into an art form. A repeat performance against Wales next month will make life very easy for Byrne, Halfpenny and the effervescent Shane Williams. I appreciate that referees are very quick to give a penalty for holding on at the breakdown but kicking hard-won possession away is not sustainable.
It may be too early to say but for this pundit, the Paddy Wallace experiment at first centre failed clearly, if not quite miserably. The idea behind the selection was sound; Gordon D’Arcy had very little rugby behind him but that excuse will hardly be pertinent after his encouraging cameo on Saturday. I am certain that Paddy Wallace was overjoyed when D’Arcy scored Ireland’s third try but I’m sure he would have preferred someone else to have scored it.
The much-vaunted Munster front five did not quite deliver the tour-de-force that they are capable of but that does leave plenty of room for improved performances later in the campaign. Jamie Heaslip was a revelation; from the terraces, I assumed that it was a back who burst and side-stepped through the French defence, so fast and nimble was the man in the green shirt. When the speedster’s identity was confirmed on the tanoy, the crowd gasped with awe and cooed with delight when they saw the try replayed on the big screen.
From a more parochial point-of-view, I was delighted at the exploits of the Leinster players in a green shirt. Clearly, the malaise that has recently afflicted Michael Chieka’s charges is due to problems at half-back. Rob Kearney did not enjoy his best afternoon but his high fielding is truly death-defying. Dare I say it, his catches put Kerry legend, Mick O’Connell, in the shade.
All-in-all, the Irish public can be proud of the performance delivered by Declan Kidney’s men. Those whispering optimists were right to talk up Ireland’s chances; we really do have a realistic chance of 6 Nations glory. Italy and England should not prove much of an obstacle. However, our Celtic cousins will enjoy home advantage and will be more formidable opposition. The Welsh peril is clearly a threat and I find it hard to believe that Scotland could be as bad against us as they were against Wales last Sunday.
Ireland’s destiny will be decided on the playing fields of Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium. As I say every year, I was three when Ireland last won the Championship. I hope the wait will end on 21st March, a full 24 years later.