Hats off to the Guinness copywriter that coined the copyline for their rugby sponsorship. ‘A Surge of Pride’ perfectly encapsulates the feeling after Saturday’s goings on at Croke Park.
The pride relates to many aspects of the day (the impressive setting, the display of sporting fraternity exhibited by the GAA, the absence of rancour during ‘God Save the Queen’, but most of all to the performance of the team.
The only man I met all day that wasn’t happy was McScrum! David Noble, the well-known face that sells the cheery McScrum hats, scarves etc. outside rugby stadia and erstwhile coach to your correspondent, was humping his outsize kitbag through the rain opposite Gill’s on the North Circular. As he wrestled his bag atop a litter bin, he bemoaned the whole set-up. ‘It’s a fruitin’ disaster! The sooner we get back to Lansdowne the better for everyone’. I think the issue was being moved off his regular pitch, but I couldn’t be sure. Still, his ‘Hat on a Pole’ proved useful when it came to making myself visible to my lovely, lovely new best friend that had a ticket for me. And many were kind enough to comment on my new and rather natty line in green beret (about as close to the Marines as this ageing scribe is going to get).
It’s funny the way things get to you. I mean, you make all the rationalisations in advance. It’s only a stadium; sure it happened 86 years ago, it’s not such a big deal; it’s got nothing to do with this generation – but when it’s all synthesized into a couple of moments and two songs, it’s a rare person that didn’t feel the power of the moment. And that was just me – poor old Jerry Flannery and The Bull Hayes were in bits.
If we feared that the occasion would get to the players again, however, how wrong we were. Despite a ropey decision to kick by Brian O’Driscoll off the first possession when he had the overlap in his own 22 and a stuttery minute thereafter, Ireland settled quickly into their stride. From third minute to last, Ireland were sharper in thought and deed.
The early tactic of kicking in behind new-boy Strettle was only partially successful, but it was a viable option because Wilkinson’s kicking out of hand was surprisingly inadequate and O’Gara’s was much improved on the two previous outings.
Simon Easterby delivered an early turnover before his backrow compadres formed twin pillars over a prone Farrell and the lead penalty was secured. The backrow as a unit delivered in spades all day long. And when Simon Easterby augments his nitty gritty with slaloming runs to the corner, then you know it’s your day.
Earlier in the day, I had the good fortune to be introduced to the mother and father of all Wallaces. David’s father confessed to still getting nervous ahead of these events. You’d wonder why. The young fella was many observers’ Man of the Match and decorated the occasion with a try that typified his power and intelligence.
At No. 8, for all his Yeoman worthiness, Martin Corry personifies the difference between the teams. His opposite number, Denis Leamy, has a dynamism and footballing skills that Corry can only dream of, and this was replicated in many positions throughout the sides.
Another early moment presaged what was to follow. O’Connell, back to his thunderous best, soared to take the first lineout against the throw. Physical bullying was a further theme throughout the day and one that gladdened the heart of those who endured physical mismatches through the 90s. O’Driscoll’s hit on Olly Morgan, and Horgan’s manhandling of Strettle when chasing a chip ahead, set the tone.
If the comparison between Leamy and Corry said much, so too did D’Arcy’s sublime flick to set up Dempsey’s score, especially when compared to the prosaic contributions of the opposing Tindall and Farrell. Such exquisite skill was a fine example of how D’Arcy has expanded his passing repertoire over the past two years.
Quite how a ‘visionary’ backline coach like Brian Ashton can select what are essentially two first centres in Tindall and Farrell on the same England side is as startling as the individual and collective lack of pace and threat they exhibited.
Despite the defeat to France, this season’s real bonus has been the relatively rock-solid nature of Ireland’s scrum. To watch Ireland, not just comfortable against England, but actively disrupting their scrum, was to have one’s perspective radically altered. Hats off to the oft-maligned front row and the backroom team. If this improvement can be sustained, it may yet be the single greatest advance in this World Cup year.
One wonders whether Rory Best’s presence has anything to do with the improved performance in this area. Either way, the doughty hooker is grimly hanging on to his position. I made his throwing display pretty faultless. He had a patch as purple as Mary Robinson’s coat right at the end of the first half when he drove Grewcock back and then caught Lewsey in possession for a turnover steal.
When Ireland began to run at England in earnest, the comparison between the two teams was brought into stark relief. It was my one wish ahead of this game that Ireland would keep ball in hand and run at the opposition, as they had done against Australia and South Africa in the Autumn.
Once they did, England simply couldn’t handle it. It is the sheer level of football ability that sets this team apart. The facility with which backs and forwards are offloading out of the tackle and unsettling opposing defences was all the more pronounced for England’s abject failure to bring this to the party.
The second half, once the England mini-revival was stemmed, was an exhibition. In that context it may seem ludicrous to suggest a turning point. But Wallace’s snagging of Lewsey that forced the knock-on and Hickie’s audacious counter-attack that nearly brought one of the tries of the season might actually have been one. Had England scored then (and had Lewsey eluded Wallace, the chances were good), then we may have been back to 29-20 with belief coursing through English veins.
Okay, I’m reaching. It seemed a long way away as Horgan caught O’Gara’s inch-perfect crosskick and the crowd decided to acknowledge the Mexican branch of the diaspora. In the end we found ourselves wondering which was the sweeter way to beat the English? The last-minute sneak (Hand of Horgan, anyone?) or the ritual slaughter (Hands of Horgan, anyone?). As the copywriter would have it, ‘How do you eat yours?’
As I watched in my new favourite Northside drinkery (the Robert Reade just off Store Street, since you ask) despite lifting the hemline, Wales couldn’t quite complete the perfect day for us. Nonetheless, as I watched a Surge of Pride prepared for me by Mr. Reade, the thought occurred that there may well be a decent head on this season yet.