Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Future is Now - O'Connell Injury the End of the Golden Generation

Who remembers Ireland beating Romania at Lansdowne Road on November 26th, 2005? Jerry Flannery does; it was his first cap. Andrew Trimble might, as he got two tries that day.

But what makes the game stand out now, as news breaks that a knee injury sees Paul O’Connell ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations, is that routine autumn international was was the last home competitive match that neither Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell nor Ronan O’Gara started in the Emerald Green of Ireland.

There were summer tours to Argentina, Japan and the States that didn’t feature either BOD, ROG or POC, the Initials Gang of the Golden Generation, but generally whenever Ireland played in the last thirteen years one of those three was there to build the team around. One of those three played in 133 out of 146 international test matches. All three started in fifty of them, and they shared a pitch 68 times, counting appearances from the bench.

The last Six Nations game in which Ireland did not start at least one of the Initials Gang is so long ago the Championship was still played among Five Nations. Ireland lost by seventeen points to Scotland in Murrayfield on March 6th, 1999, the final game of that year’s Championship, and exactly thirteen years ago today to the day. The co-incidence is so great it makes you feel the Awesome Hand of Destiny, and shudder at your chances against All-Seeing Providence.

The final fixture of that 1999 season was a home game against Italy, who were due to make the Five Nations Six the following year. Brian O’Driscoll was on the bench that day, and stayed there. O’Driscoll won his first cap at Brisbane on the summer tour of Australia that year. Ireland got pasted but a legend was born.

O’Gara won his first cap the following year, against Scotland in Lansdowne Road on February 19th, 2000, and Paul O’Connell made his debut against Wales in the 2002 Championship. O’Gara tussled with David Humphreys for the outhalf’s jersey in the early part of his career while, Superman pyjamas or no, it took Paul O’Connell a while also to claim his pace in the second row.

Both O’Gara and O’Connell started on the bench when Martin Johnson punked the IRFU in the Grand Slam Game at Lansdowne Road in 2003. Humphreys played ten, and the locks were Malcolm O’Kelly and Gary Longwell. O’Driscoll had no challengers, and still doesn’t.

That 2003 Grand Slam game provides a good benchmark for judging when what’s commonly known as the Golden Generation began. Keith Wood was at the end of his career, raging at the dying of the light. Wood was a true great of Irish rugby, but his career was half and half amateur and professional. The alchemy happened to late for him.

The Golden Generation of the Initials Gang were the front of house players during the rugby boom in this country that coincided with the Tiger. There were other players there, of whom people would have fond memories – John Hayes weeping at every Amhrán na bhFiann, David Wallace, Gordon D’Arcy, Shaggy. The bitterly unlucky Peter Stringer, the man whose career suffered the most from the 2007 World Cup nightmare and who was among the least to blame. But the Initials Gang were the difference makers and one stood head and shoulders above the others.

Brian Moore made the point in the Telegraph that Ireland could have won on Sunday if Brian O’Driscoll had been there. Ireland could have won the Grand Slam in 2007 if Brian O’Driscoll had started against France. And if he’d been around in 1641 maybe the great man would even have given Cromwell a run for his money.

The Golden Generation should have won more, but we are grateful for the Slam they did win, and for the provincial success they enjoyed. Neither is likely to come this way again.

The game is evolving as quickly as ever, and the advantages Ireland enjoyed in the span of the golden generation, from the presence of one of the greatest ever to run with the ball to the way the international club competitions fell right for us, are unlikely to last. We are lucky to have seen the days of glory when we did.

FOCAL SCOIR: Player stats from Stats Guru at ESPN Scrum, a genuinely outstanding resource.