Saturday, February 12, 2005

One Step Closer to the Shamrock Slam

It's time to start thinking of the Shamrock Slam. Twenty minutes into their second match of the campaign, Ireland were in big trouble in Murrayfield. Eight points down after conceding a penalty and a try that began with Chris Paterson waltzing through the Irish midfield like Little Red Riding Hood on here way to Grandma's, Ireland were in danger of living up to their long tradition of being turned to haggis in Edinburgh.

Trotting up the field after a long kick found a lineout inside the Irish 22, Irish Number 8 Anthony Foley said something to Ronan O'Gara. An Spailpín is unaware of the substance of Foley's remarks, but he presumes that it was a 21st century echo of Ciarán Fitzgerald's famous "Where's your f****** pride?" of 1985. Because whatever got into the Irish pack's head, they decided they had their fill of being pushed around by Scotland, and decided that they would do the pushing from here on in.

Whatever impact the Irish backline was going to have minus O'Driscoll and D'Arcy, the pack took it upon themselves not to chance it, and leave the winning of the game strictly to themselves. And this is exactly what they did - after an anonymous performance in Rome, the Irish eight were imperious at Murrayfield, none more so that open side flanker Johnny O'Connor.

Not even on the bench for the Italian job, O'Connor was winning his third cap against Scotland and the pressure was mounting on the Galwayman after less than stellar displays against Die Bokke and Argentina. O'Connor delivered in spades, announcing himself in glorious style at a ruck on about the half-hour mark. As Scottish scrum-half Cusiter stooped to reach for the pill, O'Connor came scrambling over the mound of bodies like a puck goat over a particularly rocky mountain, and laid hands on Cusiter, to Cusiter's intense disquiet. From there on in O'Connor was in Cusiter's face, where he belonged. It is the job of every conscientious open-side flanker to bully scrum-halves and make them cry and we can only speculate that, when Cusiter got to the safety of the dressing room and reached for his after-match cigarette, he first checked his box of matches to make sure O'Connor wasn't in there, lying in ambush.

O'Connor's example was matched by his captain, as Paul O'Connell's tremendous physicality battered Scottish resistance into the ground, first on the paddock and latterly in their heads. Rugby, for all its jargon and catch-phrases, is really a simple game that boils down to one simple maxim - tough guys win. Today Ireland proved themselves the toughest, and, barring an unexpected English or French display tomorrow at Twickers, look set fair for a Grand Slam decider against Wales in Cardiff forty-eight hours after St Patrick's Day.

Wales showed no sign of a post-England celebratory hangovers as they dispatched Italy professionally, ruthlessly, and most worrying for Ireland, with no small amount of the élan for which Welsh rugby was famous in its heydey. And that was a hundred year heydey, don't forget. Now the Welsh are back and playing the Welsh way, with a functional if not bed-wettingly terrifying pack and many game-breakers behind the scrum. Stephen Jones at ten is no Barry John but then, of course, neither is anyone else. Henson and Shane Williams are the real deal, and Gareth Thomas is no mug either.

As things stack up now, the Six Nations striates into three, with Ireland and Wales at the top, England/France or France/England in the second tier depending on how things go tomorrow, and Italy and Scotland fighting it out in the tight for the Wooden Spoon. So, allowing the fact that it's far too early for this sort of thing to be outweighed by the fact it's such wizard fun, here is An Spaipín Fánach's Lions Test XV:

Murphy (Ire); Robinson (Eng), O'Driscoll (Ire, capt.), Henson (Wales), Williams (Wales); O'Gara (Ire), Peel (Wales); Rowntree (Eng), Bulloch (Scot), Hayes (Ire); Grewcock (Eng), O'Connell (Ire); White (Scot), O'Connor (Ire), Duine Eile (Tír Eile, ar ndóigh).

I think Paterson will travel as a utility back with the squad, as he can play anywhere along the backs. Murphy edges Gareth Thomas at fullback, the three quarter line picks itself really and it really is a back division of the highest quality. The team would be awesome if Wilkinson were fit but it's looking increasingly like his World Cup medal cost Jonny Wilkinson the rest of his career. I hope I'm wrong, but in his absense O'Gara fills the stand-off half's first duty of generalissimo better than the flaky Hodgson, whatever you read in the papers. Peel is a fine scrumhalf, some positions in the pack yet to be decided.