by Conor O'Shea
No words could ever do justice to the pure sporting theatre that surrounded Ireland’s epic Grand Slam win in the Millenium Stadium on Saturday. To say that it was nerve racking and tense wouldn’t even begin to describe the emotions this incredible group of players and coaches brought us through in those last few minutes. In the end these players got the prize they deserved, and the Nation got the Slam it craved.
In the game, Ireland were the better team. Only the pressure of the situation, something which none of us can even begin to comprehend, saw us make silly mistakes and give away the penalties that made it close like at no other time in the Championship.
To the older generation within the team it is the end of a long journey. However, in some ways this could be the beginning of something even more exciting. Sheer will to win meant they were never going to be denied and I really believe that this can release the shackles and allow us to really move onwards and upwards.
One or two players aprt, this side are all going to be around for Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, if they remain motivated. With players like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, and coaches like Declan Kidney they will keep on driving and keep on pushing to achieve more.
Ireland - young talent for the future
Am I getting too carried away? I don’t think so. This team has so much talent that we haven’t even begun to see. Youngsters like Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip have so much more to give. Bring into the equation those on the fringes like Keith Earls, Darren Cave and David Pollock to name but three and you can’t but get excited.
But thinking ahead is for another day, this is all about today and celebrating this team and this group of players. The reception they received in Dublin will have shown them what it meant to everyone, not just the thousands that were in Cardiff but to the country and to those who live outside of Ireland. We are all walking taller and prouder because of their achievements.
I was interested prior to the match to hear Eddie Butler, the former Welsh captain, say that he thought some Irish players would wilt and suffer through the occasion and I would say that no one on either team could fall into that category. Yes, there were uncharacteristic mistakes but they were across the board. It wasn’t a case of one player having a shocker. When, in the last ten minutes of the game, one mistake could have meant the ultimate in defeat we saw Luke Fitzgerald receive a ball 35 yards from his own line and looking up setting off on a mazy run instead of kicking. That tells you all you need to know both about both him and the team.
Ireland's win - team took responsibility
When all is said and done rugby is about taking responsibility. Winning teams have leaders who are willing to put their necks on the line, who always put their hands up and say “I’ll do the job”. Take our big three of Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara. O’Connell carried, tackled and together with Donnacha O’Callaghan destroyed the Welsh lineout - John Hayes take a bow also for your lifting. O’Driscoll was, well, O’Driscoll. I never got the chance to see some of the greats of other eras and they say that you should never compare but if he is not the greatest Irish player of all time then I would love to go back in time to see that man –and I would love to have seen Jack Kyle in full flow. His try was all about inches and it is inches that make the difference. The man is incredible.
The final words must go to Ronan O’Gara. Singled out for special attention from the whole Welsh team, their plan was take him out as a way to take Ireland out. They really got to him with their runners but at the end of the match he dropped into the pocket and dropped that goal. People may say that that is his job and they are right but how many times do you see people hide and not take that on. The greats never hide and he didn’t either.
Ronan O'Gara and Stephen Jones - mutual respect
I am sure Ronan will feel for his opposite number Stephen Jones, who kept Wales in touch, dropped a goal of his own but then crucially gave Ireland the field position by putting the ball out on the full and surrendering the lineout from which Ronan dropped the winning goal. There was worse to come for Jones too (though it was very nearly Paddy Wallace!) when, with the last kick of the game, he came up short. In the end, they are two great players who have played central roles in exceptional dramas before and will do so again. I wasn’t surprised to see that the only jerseys to be swapped after the game were between these two great number 10s. They’ll now have to scrap it out for the Lions number 10 slot but the respect is obvious.
As I have said, there is too much to say and to do this team justice will require a book. We could go through the tactical calls from the coaching staff to exploit the weakness between Gavin Henson and Shane Williams when Wales lost Lee Byrne, the slashing breaks from Tommy Bowe and ultimately his try, the continuing brilliance of David Wallace or the amazing longevity of John Hayes, then you have the crowds in Cardiff and back in the pubs and homes in Ireland.
It was a truly unique day and let’s hope it will inspire a new generation of rugby stars.
To the team, all I can say is thank you for inspiring us all; you have received the baton from the team of 1948, and there is no more worthy a group it could have been handed to.