Monday, November 03, 2003

Indomitable Irishry

If George Smyth is going to wear a perfectly enormous handle on his head, I don’t see for one second why he should be surprised if an opposition tackler takes a good strong hold of it.

Smyth is a beautiful rugby player. The man is an animal in the best sense. The changes in the game have reduced one of the great traditional confrontations of rugby, the bullying of the stand off half by the openside flanker, almost to a thing of the past, but old men like Ian Kirkpatrick and Frik du Preez and Fergus Slattery must have had their hearts gladdened when Smyth came roaring off the scrum to ding Irish outhalf Ronan O’Gara good.

And then he did it again. Australia were bossing Ireland completely on Saturday evening in Melbourne, and it looked for a long time (twenty minutes that were as twenty years to the indomitable Irishry) as though the Australians were going to run riot.

And then Brian O’Driscoll hauled Smyth to the turf and the world came tumbling around Australia as a result.

O’Driscoll was penalised for the tackle, as by the letter of the law it was high. But it was a statement of intent, and that intent, to wire it up to the Australians, was carried out by some of the outstanding Irish rugby footballers of their generation, if not ever. O’Driscoll himself had become a target of ridiculous criticism in some quarters of the Irish media, but it never bothered him. It would be easy for a player of O’Driscoll’s stature to become a Luis Figo clone, there for the glory and absent for the work, but Brian O’Driscoll is and has been one of the most consistent tacklers on the Irish team. The talent was always in him and he knew it, and it’s one of the signs of a great player that he does his funky stuff on the great stages. Great players aren’t going to bothered playing for Old Leftfooterstone’s against the President’s XV, but show them the world champions and then slip their leash, and see what havoc will result.

So it was with O’Driscoll. The try from nothing, the most beautiful ugly drop goal of the tournament, and the constant smashing, jarring tackles all over the field of engagement. Add in the pulling of Georgie’s pigtails and the day was almost perfect.

O’Driscoll was not alone. Simon Easterby came of age at blindside flanker. Paul O’Connell bestrides the rugby world like a colossus, one of the stars of the 2003 World Cup. The Bull Hayes is taking over the Claw’s ermine mantle. Kevin Maggs is the unsung hero of the team, but the greatest and bravest and the finest was, is and has been since 1994, the gallant Irish captain, Keith Wood.

This is Wood’s last hurrah, and if old Henry Devil were to rise out of the fiery pit of Hell, Keith Wood would still put down the head and charge. Wood is magnificent. He’s in more places than McCavity the Mystery Cat, and he even kicks. When Ireland’s World Cup comes to an end as it surely must, Keith Wood will walk into the sunset and there will be a void that cannot be filled. Ní bheidh a leithid arís ann.

When the World Cup ends though, is an interesting one. Ireland lost more than a chance to bloody an Aussie nose on Saturday in Melbourne – they lost the easy route to the semi finals, over a dead-but-not-fallen-over Scotland in a quarter-final in Brisbane. Now they must journey through the representatives of that land of Mordor where they drink wine instead of porter, where they eat snails instead of bacon, and on whom your correspondent has invested his ten lids to win the William Webb Ellis trophy.

France start as fourteen point favourites to beat Ireland at an hour when all right thinking Irishmen and Irishwomen will be sitting up in front of their TVs, shivering with the porter sweats. Eddie O’Sullivan is getting annoyed at the plucky Irish tag and rightly so – Ireland have only lost three of their last twenty-one games including three out of four against the French themselves, and are deserving of more than a fighting Irish cliché. Unfortunately, all fighters have limits, and there is a very great danger that this golden generation of Irish rugby players are reaching the bottom of their reserves of strength.

It should not be forgotten that the Irish were already at a disadvantage before a ball was kicked in the World Cup when they lost fullback Geordan Murphy to a broken leg. Now a torn Achilles tendon has cost them Dennis Hickie. Both two of the great attacking players in World Rugby, both men who would walk onto any side. This hugely reduces their scoring threat.

Also, the Irish back row play has been unconvincing, and now that back row must face the Three Musketeers of French loose forward play, the supreme talents of the evergreen Olivier Magne and Serge Betsen, and the terrifying sorcerer’s apprentice at Number 8, Imanol Hardinordoquy. It’s a big ask for any team to face that sort of forward talent, with Fabien Galthie to orchestrate wave after wave of French attack over the no-man’s land that the Musketeers have claimed as their own, but Ireland still have a chance. It’s a slim one, but it exists.

A friend of An Spailpin is convinced that big Donnacha O’Callaghan could be the answer at Number Eight. Why Donnacha? In a nutshell, because he’s a broth of an Irish boy. The fighting Irish tag might be a cliché, but the fact is there is a considerable amount of divil in Big Donnacha, and he could cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war if he got amongst some Frenchmen who really haven’t been tested in the fire so far in this World Cup.

It’s probably too much of a reach – that last minute drop goal that sailed right and wide in Melbourne’s dying minutes probably took the Irish hopes with it. But whatever happens this Irish team, Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter are united behind him them now. If they die, they die on their feet. Roll on Sunday.