Michael Clark takes a nostalgic look at the 61 years of trials and tribulations that led to Ireland’s Grand Slam victory.
61 years is a long time. In 1948, Harry S. Truman pulled off his miraculous come-from-behind US election victory. 16 years of uninterrupted Fianna Fáil government came to end as Eamon de Valera ended his first stint as Taoiseach. The state of Israel came into existence while Princess Elizabeth would have to wait four years before ascending the throne of the United Kingdom. The ravages of World War II still wreaked havoc across Europe. Amidst those deprived and tumultuous times, a group of amateur Irish gentlemen won four rugby union matches.
The achievements of the 1948 Irish team were considerable but hardly caused a sporting earthquake on an island where rugby was very much a minority sport. The bulk of the population viewed, rightly or wrongly, rugby as a sport played by the wealthy elite that was actively hostile to independence or at least lukewarm on the national question. As with all sweeping generalisations, there are notable exceptions but in a country that had torn itself apart only two decades previously, the suspicions that clouded rugby were understandable, if unenlightened.
My grandfather, a proud GAA man, who also attended the occasional rugby international often recounted tales of the outright hostility felt by some Dubliners to the Irish rugby team. Indeed, enlightened as my grandfather was, I often questioned his rugby and soccer ‘patriotism’ when Ireland were inevitably beaten: he never seemed to be as upset as I was.
Thankfully, the artificial distinctions that have divided Irishmen and Irishwomen for centuries are now finally subsiding as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Declan Kidney’s men have earned the plaudits of an entire nation of sports-lovers, not just those who count rugby as their primary activity. Were he alive today, I am confident that my grandfather would have been shouting at the television, cursing the recklessness of Paddy Wallace and cheering O’Gara drop-goals with the same ferocity as a hardened Limerick rugby fan.
That the exploits of the 1948 team achieved such totemic significance is a result of the ill-luck and more often, the complete incompetence of the sixty Five and Six Nations squads that followed them. In the week before the game, Keith Wood hit the nail on the head when he frankly described Ireland’s record since 1948 as embarrassing. Over those 61 barren years, the Irish team turned failure into an art form, contriving to lose matches when the formbook suggested that defeat was all but impossible.
I can’t adequately describe disappointments from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies but in my 27 years, I have witnessed enough near misses for an entire lifetime. In fairness, even this hard-hearted pundit recognises that the problem over those years has tended to be France, who have always been difficult to beat and are all but invincible in Paris (at least when they’re playing men in green shirts). Of all those failures, the greatest disappointment must be the tragedy of 2001, where Ireland overcame Italy, outgunned a French side for the second year in a row, crushed Wales and beat England for the first time in seven years.
The wily Scots crushed our hopes that year just as they ended England’s Grand Slam chances the year before. That Murrayfield match; had disaster been averted and victory secured, could well have prefaced an era of stellar success for the Irish. Warren Gatland would likely have retained his job and the Eddie O’Sullivan era of mechanistic and uninspired rugby could well have been avoided.
Had a young Irish team secured a Grand Slam back then, the sky would have been the limit and the 2003 and 2007 World Cup campaigns would have showcased a confident Irish rugby team, with real and tangible achievements and a bulging trophy cabinet. Instead, we have suffered eight more years of vacillation and hand-wringing.
Like Sisyphus, the Irish rugby team pushed the rock forward again and again; the destination remained as elusive as ever and every year they were forced to start from scratch again, with the same doubts and fears plaguing their every move.
Many column inches will be written about the 2009 Grand Slam champions by rugby writers with far greater knowledge of the game than I. They will doubtlessly cite Declan Kidney’s management abilities and the immense contributions of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell. They will laud the combination of youth and experience as exemplified by precocious youths like Kearney, Fitzgerald and Heaslip and hardened veterans like David Wallace and John Hayes. They may well point to frailties in our opponents that gave the 2009 team a slightly easier task than their forbears.
For me, the Six Nations Championship will be defined by four moments where Ireland struck critical blows. Jamie Heaslip’s remarkable pace and side-stepping ability in his try against France set up Ireland’s championship back in early February. Ronan O’Gara’s second penalty against England, after he was guilty of four awful misses (of easier kicks), gave us an eight-point lead just as England began to look dangerous. Brian O’Driscoll’s tackle of Thom Evans in the dying moments of the first half against Scotland prevented another Murrayfield disaster that would have hurt every bit as much as the calamity in 2001.
As for the Welsh match, it is chastening to realise that the fruits of hours of immense physicality, formidable skill and hard slog come down to one kick of a stationary ball, some 48 metres from goal.
All that Herculean effort could have been snuffed out by the concession of a needless penalty. The players would have earned our sympathy in public but deep down, we would have castigated them as losers of the most pitiable kind. The Irish players should always be grateful that Chris Patterson was born in Scotland, and not Wales.
As the ball fell short and landed in the arms of Geordan Murphy, a collective sigh of relief was exhaled by an entire nation. We had stared down the barrel of defeat, yet had somehow emerged unscathed.
Over the years, I have often written that Ireland last won a championship when I was three years old. It gives me great pleasure to write that Ireland last won a Championship when I was 27 and three-quarters on Saturday, 21st March 2009. I hope to see another Grand Slam before my 90th birthday.