Sunday, March 15, 2009

Slam of BOD? Irish Rugby on the Cusp of Glory

Peter Stringer’s triumphant return to the Irish rugby team yesterday evening two years after he was made the sole scapegoat for the 2007 World Cup disaster was a moment to delight the hardest of hearts in these hard times. In fact, laughing out loud when Stringer made his break to set up Jamie Heaslip’s try was the only sensible reaction. Stringer did the same thing for Munster in the 2005 Heineken Cup final, a break that won that game as well.

For a scrum half, it isn’t so much a question of if he breaks, but more a question of when. Because Stringer breaks so rarely, what’s rare is truly wonderful.

The criticism of the game in Edinburgh yesterday has been harsh. Ireland struggled in the first half, certainly, but credit to the Scots, who showed a return to their own thorny traditions, despite those hideous jerseys. But when you’re so long out of practice, it’s hard to get it to hang together for the eighty minutes, and Scotland were doubly unfortunate in that they came up against a team that are on a mission worthy of the Grail Knights themselves.

The book appeared shut on this Golden Generation – your correspondent certainly buried them rather than praised them in this space. And then, suddenly, a new coach, a new philosophy, some fresh faces and a harum-scarum win over France in Dublin to start the campaign and suddenly it’s 2003 all over again.

It has to be just as obvious to the players as it is to the fans that the Golden Generation has underachieved. A friend of the blog and a great rugby man himself told your faithful narrator during the week that he believed this could be the start of a brave new dawn for Irish rugby. The great gaping hole where Ronan O’Gara’s successor should be casts doubts on that theory. Ireland's playing population is so small that any chance that comes must be grabbed with both hands, because you don't know how long you'll have to wait until it comes again.

What this season is about for Ireland, therefore, is redemption. The BBC had a graphic last night that showed when you table the games won in the Six Nations this decade Ireland are second only to France in games won, but they have no Championship to show for it. When you consider the ballaragging Mayo get for consistently winning games yet coming second in the All-Ireland the irony is warm to the touch.

But unlike Mayo’s golden generation, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and the rest have seen the stone rolled away from the tomb before time is called, and they now know that they are only eighty minutes away from a title, the winning of which would make up for all those left behind, and would banish the ghosts that would otherwise haunt them into the autumn of their years.

The only problem is that the title will have to be won the hard way, in Cardiff, against the Welsh.

There is no question that the majority of the Lions’ first XV will be made up of Welsh and Irish. When the teams face each other in Cardiff at half-past five on Saturday it will be a contest so even that it will all come down to the vagaries of fate who will triumph in the end.

The Welsh have home advantage and a rich and proud history behind them. The Irish have the advantage of the kind of momentum that four wins gives. Ireland edge it slightly up front, not least with the presence of the new men of the back row, the stern and resolute Stephen Ferris and the increasingly irrepressible Jamie Heaslip.

It’s advantage Wales at half-back, where Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones are the leading contenders to wear nine and ten for the Lions in South Africa. And in the three quarters it’s possibly a slight edge to Wales as well.

Ireland’s greatest strength is Brian O’Driscoll, of course. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine famously wrote of Clint Eastwood when Unforgiven came out that “in three decades of climbing into the saddle, Eastwood has never ridden so tall.” It’s tempting to think of Brian O’Driscoll this year in the same terms.

The jets are gone now, compared to what they were, but it was never speed that separated O’Driscoll from the herd. It is his sheer appetite for battle, and for getting stuck in. The Brian O’Driscoll that exists between the white lines is not the same Brian O’Driscoll that gives such anodyne press interviews. O’Driscoll has a deep reservoir of fury that he taps into, rather like the Berserker warriors of Celtic lore.

He may not have said it at the time, but An Spailpín Fánach believes that O’Driscoll himself is more annoyed than anyone at the titles Ireland left behind. O’Driscoll did an interview for the BBC that was broadcast yesterday where he mentioned what winning three games against France, Italy and England were worth if Ireland were to lose in Edinburgh and Cardiff: “we won three games in 2005 and who talks about 2005 now?”

2005 was also the year that Brian O’Driscoll captained the Lions so very briefly. Funny how the subconscious pops up when you don’t expect it.

Brian O’Driscoll has been disappointed every time he’s reached a summit in rugby. Ireland have not won a Championship in his time, his Lions’ captaincy was a disaster and the 2007 World Cup was all nightmares come true at once. None of this is O’Driscoll’s own fault – even when Ireland were getting handed their hats by Argentina, O’Driscoll was personally outstanding as the team fell apart around him. Brian O’Driscoll wants this one very, very badly.

After the drama of team selection last week An Spailpín Fánach is confident that Declan Kidney will name the following team on Tuesday: Kearney; Bowe, B O’Driscoll (c), D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; O’Gara, Stringer; Horan, Flannery; Hayes; O’Connell, O’Callaghan; Ferris, Wallace, Heaslip. Go n-éirí leo ar shlí na glóire.

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