by Conor O'Shea
I asked last week whether we would be able to dream after this weekend or whether the French would do what they did to us in Croke Park two years ago. We have our answer; this was one of the great games of any Championship era, a match in which both sides brought their ‘A’ games, and Ireland came out on top. From time to time you get drawn into the euphoria of games and get carried away and this time, you just had to allow yourself to.
It is hard to know where to start but I would first like to focus on both the captain and the coach. Brian O’Driscoll may not have been awarded man of the match but he rolled back the years not just with a try that could have been scored in Paris all those years ago, but also with his all round game as auxiliary number seven, distributor, kicker, decision maker and captain. It was a reminder, if anyone needed one, that we have been graced for a decade by one of the all time greats of not just Irish rugby, but of international rugby.
The man who ignored the clamour to change captaincy was Declan Kidney and he seems to have infused this team with the same gene he has given all his teams from Schools to Under-19’s to Munster and now Ireland. Ireland were on the ropes at times yesterday but they never stopped playing for one another, tackling and supporting as if their lives depended on it. It is a trait of Declan Kidney teams; a coach is nothing if the players won’t play for him and Declan’s players do that.
Ireland - more challenges ahead
Straight after the match Kidney spoke of the players, 'the fellas', deflecting immediately any praise that may come to him. He also preaches humility and not looking too far ahead. People did immediately start thinking of Wales in the last game for a Grand Slam. Forget it. I said last week that each game is a banana skin if not approached with the same focus as yesterday and that is still the case.
I cannot think of one person who didn’t impact on the game yesterday (from both sides). I am not a fan of Marc Livremont because of how he uses the talent at his disposal but he let loose the France of old and in eras past Ireland’s fitness would not have allowed them to stay with the pace. Now? Picture the 35 year old John Hayes making a try saving tackle in the 80th minute when the game was already won!
O’Driscoll’s try was an individualistic throw back to 2000, but Jamie Heaslip’s try was a truly great team score finished by a young man whose athleticism marks him out. He has gone through a quiet few months for someone of his talent but confidence in sport is everything and there are quite a few Leinster players have rediscovered their's by being part of Kidney’s Ireland.
D'Arcy's try - the fairytale score
Ireland’s clinching try was scored by a guy who would be one of the most popular scorers of all. After 12 months fighting a lonely battle with injury, Gordon D’arcy and his dancing feet were back again to get the fairytale score.
As I said you could go on about all the players - Kearney’s solidity under the restarts, Tomas O’Leary’s work rate (though his kicks were often too long), the immense Stephen Ferris, the continued excellence of Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell and the use and impact of the experienced bench but you could go on too long. Suffice it to say there are days when you know why you love the sport you are involved in and this was one of them. Two teams playing rugby with physicality, passion, ambition and skill. It doesn’t get better.
Now, though, comes the hard part. With euphoria comes expectation and pressure. The team will know they now have a serious chance in this championship but they have to keep their feet on the ground. Next up are Italy, who were abject yesterday but Nick Mallet made one of the biggest selection gaffes of all time by picking the great Mauro Bergamsco at nine and will hardly do so again. The poor Italian pack, who were magnificent as ever, never had a chance and Andrea Marcato at fly-half could have been forgiven if he had decided to go down injured after getting the ultimate hospital pass by the out of position Bergamasco.
Ireland will improve for next week's clash
But Ireland will know that Italy will have a better scrum-half next week. Whoever they pick might not be not be any good by the usual standards, but whoever they pick will presumably at least he will be able to play in the position. They will also be their usual obdurate selves at home, and I don’t expect champagne rugby from either team next week. Italy will not allow the game to go that way and Ireland will know that. I will come back to that later in the week.
As for England they will not be happy with their performance at all, although 36-11 looks good on paper. In truth, they were handed this one on a plate and only created one of their five tries through team play. They can and will only get better.
But we are up and running - what a way to help everyone overcome the blues we are all suffering. Les bleus came and played, les verts conquered.