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Slam Dunk

Slam Dunk

Adrian O’Farrell has been charting the fortunes of Irish rugby in his exclusive articles for the Supporters Club. Now comes the one he has always wanted to write!

There’s a touch of ‘The Van’ about this. Remember Roddy Doyle’s story of how the nation was gripped by football fever during Italia ’90?

Grown men acting like complete fools in front of their disbelieving and slightly shocked children. City centre celebrations bigger than we might have imagined. Media saturation.

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Grand Slam Saturday was the first time that my eight-year-old son sat in a room crowded with adults and kids decked out in various green fashion disasters screaming at a TV, jumping around, hugging and kissing one minute, hiding behind their fingers and the sofa the next. 

The thing is that he is a soccer-mad kid. He plays a bit of rugby on a Sunday morning and is even starting to like it maybe half as much as football.

But he has now seen that rugby can deliver to the nation and himself an experience to beat anything that the Premiership can deliver.

We all have our own memories of watching Ireland play on TV when we were kids. Mine were bound up in great excitement but generally ended with acute disappointment.

We seemed to be forever getting tonked by Wales in the days when Wales wore black shorts to distinguish them from Ireland on black and white TV.

My first clear memory was of Dick Spring dropping the ball on the Irish line for an opponent to flop on it for the try. Sorry to bring it up Dick, but it took me a long time to come to terms with it too. And, in truth, you seemed to recover from it better than I did.

The current generation of eight-year-olds experienced a day that will live with them for a long time – who knows, maybe 61 years?

Saturday was the first time my son has sat through a full game of rugby on TV. On Sunday morning, my young fella picked up the Sunday papers and started reading about rugby. This has never happened before.

That it has happened now appears increasingly to be down to a talk-in in Enfield. When the IRFU come to make the Grand Slam DVD, they should open it in the room where the Irish squad held their honest and open discussions.

Good old Rog. You know when he’s interviewed after a match that you’re going to get something extra.

When he talked about ‘loving playing in this jersey’ and there being ‘no cliques’, it was saying a lot in light of his comments of last autumn.

The fruit of these honest discussions was harvested on Saturday in circumstances that could not have been more dramatic.

There were heart-warming tales wherever you looked on the park. Overall this was redemption on a grand scale for a group of players that endured one of Irish sport’s great nightmares in the World Cup.

More than that, it would have left a massive hole in the careers of ‘the golden generation’ to have retired without this crowning glory.

In much the same way as Munster had heroes such as Gaillimh (Mick Galwey) and Claw (Peter Clohessy), who dug a lot of ground out for those that followed, the likes of Malcolm O’Kelly, Shane Horgan, Denis Hickie, David Humphreys, Simon Easterby, Shane Byrne, Girvan Dempsey and more deserve kudos.

Declan Kidney has always maintained that you need to lose one to win one and guys like Jamie Heaslip, Tomas O’Leary, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe have stood on their shoulders.

There may be some who will cavil at the lack of real style in winning this Slam. True, it didn’t have the élan that Wales had last year, or even perhaps Ireland’s 2004 Triple Crown.

However, there were two cracking matches against France and Wales and two decent ones against Scotland and England.

One Sunday newspaper reckoned that Kidney would now have to be reckoned to be one of the best sporting coaches in Ireland’s history.

Which begs the question as to who else might also be considered? I would have thought there’s very little contest for that particular accolade.

Kidney has picked up a team that had very little confidence and yet all of the post-match interviews focused on one word – belief.

That’s some turnaround in three months with a group of players who have paid a visit to the abyss and who entered this match knowing that very many people were questioning their bottle, given how close they had been before without getting to light the cigar.

Individually there were touching moments. Just looking at that great warrior John Hayes will generally do it for you, but if you need a further dollop of emotion, just consider what Ronan O’Gara went through at the World Cup.

The injuries that David Wallace and Gordon D’Arcy have suffered, the ongoing slighting of Marcus Horan’s ability to scrummage, Tommy Bowe’s pace, the spectacular comeback of Peter Stringer and finally the dismissal of Brian O’Driscoll as past it.

That it was even close at the end was almost exclusively down to the referee and discipline. In truth, Ireland were a far better team on the day, but continually fell foul of Wayne Barnes’ whistle.

By the close, one had a good understanding of what New Zealand went through at the World Cup. It’s not that the decisions against Ireland were wrong, it’s just when you have a team that’s on top giving away that number of penalties, there is a suspicion that one team is being looked at more than the other.

Certainly, however, Barnes was absolutely correct in awarding that potentially fatal last penalty against Paddy Wallace.

Asked in Dawson Street on Sunday what was going through his head at the time, Wallace replied, ‘I thought the game needed a little more drama’. It’s funny now…

The RTE coverage visited a couple of rugby clubs around the country, including one in Belfast.

In a month when the spectre of misguided terrorism has hung over this island, it was a moment that brought to mind how Irish rugby has always brought and continues to bring people together.

It won’t be long until we hear about how the players don’t want to be remembered for winning this thing just once and history shows that Grand Slam winners tend to win a bit more around their Slam (for example, the 1948 team won the Triple Crown the following year). Hopefully, the three Triple Crowns leading up to this weren’t it.

The future benefits to Irish rugby of that miss by Stephen Jones are enormous (and we’d have preferred it to have been anyone other than that gentleman).

The current benefits to the country’s sense of self esteem are pretty good too. Set alongside another display of mental and physical courage by Bernard Dunne on Saturday night, it was a wonderful antidote to economic gloom and tales of financial sleight of hand.

I had reached a stage where I couldn’t be sure that I would experience a Grand Slam in my lifetime. At least this is one bogey my son won’t ever have to get his head around.