We asked rugby fan and blogger Jeff Pagano of ‘Harpin On Rugby’ to give us a fan’s view of the weekend’s international action at Donnybrook and the Aviva Stadium.
Answering ‘Ireland’s Call’ as a fan three times in one Six Nations weekend is something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, and thankfully the stars aligned perfectly for me to be able to watch the Men, Women and Under-20s all face their Italian counterparts in successive days.
First up were the Under-20s on Friday evening at Donnybrook. I know I’m giving away my age here but on the way to the ground I met someone with whom I went to school, only he wasn’t going just because he’s an Ireland rugby nut like myself – his son was actually starting!
This brought it home to me just what this young squad is all about for the fans. The way I see it, they can do no wrong on the night. Now by that I don’t mean they won’t make mistakes, nor do I mean they shouldn’t have them pointed out when they do.
But having done all it takes to get to this point – the schools and club rugby matches at all levels, plus of course all the training sessions week in and week out – these are the lads who have shown enough promise and now must get used to a whole new dimension of the sport, namely the build-up to big international occasions.
Pulling on the green jersey, impatiently waiting to take the field before doing so in front of an excited flag-waving crowd, lining up for the anthems…I’m writing as if I’ve done it myself, but sadly it was only ever in my imagination!
For these lads it is an opportunity to savour all of that extra pomp and circumstance yet somehow manage to stay focused enough to get on with the task at hand. Add to that a schedule of five such encounters in seven weeks, plus the travelling to away destinations, and you have an invaluable experience for them no matter what happens on the pitch.
All of that said, as fans we do of course like to watch the actual rugby itself as well, and this curtain-raiser to the weekend certainly did not disappoint.
The Irish youngsters were keen to pass the ball across the back-line – perhaps a little too keen in the opening stages when the Italians pinched one and ran it back to open the scoring, but that certainly didn’t deter the home side. They quickly recovered and ran in four tries of their own with some thrilling play from the likes of skipper Tommy O’Brien and man-of-the-match James McCarthy impressing, but it was more about how the team worked together to settle down and earn the try bonus point before half time.
But it wasn’t just the boys in green who were there to play rugby. Despite losing a flanker to a red card for a dangerous tackle after just nine minutes, the Azzurri never threw in the towel even when down by as many as 23 points.
Perhaps it was the occasional sight of senior team coach Conor O’Shea on the big screen down at the Bective end that spurred them on but whatever it was, thanks mostly to tidy mauling from their forwards, they mounted an incredible comeback to reduce the margin to just four at the end, earning two well-deserved bonus points in the process.
All in all, it was a great start to the weekend with eleven tries overall and plenty to talk about over a few pints afterwards as I tried to ignore the fact that my beloved Leinster were being beaten in Edinburgh!
From 5 to 6
Then came Saturday with its ‘main event’ at the Aviva Stadium. Naturally, I have been to many such matches before…again showing my age, I even have fond memories when the tournament’s name began with ‘Five’ not ‘Six’ and the Italians weren’t yet involved.
That doesn’t make each new occasion any less exciting, however. En route to the ground I counted five times I overheard different groups of fellow fans talking about ‘that drop goal’ – Johnny Sexton’s heroic strike in Paris created a buzz that will last long after this season is in the record books.
I also noticed a decent amount of Italian fans, some of whom seem to have made a weekend of it by going to all three matches much like myself. They certainly played their part by not only joining in the anthem singing but also coming together across the ground for chants of ‘Ee-tal-ya!!!’ throughout the afternoon.
And when it came to the contest itself, if it was your first time in the stadium you might say the atmosphere in the crowd was ‘subdued’ for long periods, but in actual fact I think the vast majority of the Irish fans were simply in awe of just how comfortably the home side were able to get the job done, and right from the opening kick-off no less.
First Robbie Henshaw, then Conor Murray, then Bundee Aki, then Keith Earls crossed the Italian line at seemingly regular intervals while Sexton was slotting the extra points from all over, and when the visitors had the ball they found our fifteen-man green wall tough to break down.
By half-time the try-scoring bonus point was in the bag and it was only four minutes into the second period when Henshaw latched on to an interception to grab his second…though this came as a price.
Already troubled by an injury that forced Tadhg Furlong from the field after just three minutes, it was worrying to see Robbie getting treatment for so long, and as he eventually left the field he got a standing ovation from fans of both sides.
But Ireland were far from finished scoring, and it was time for the forwards to get in on the act when a maul was finished off, definitely not for the first time and probably not the last either, with captain Rory Best dotting down.
So that was six converted tries on the board without our guests so much as coming near our line. That O’Shea’s men were able to nick back nineteen points before the end is a concern, but most certainly not the main one for Irish fans…I’ll let Joe Schmidt handle all of that when he goes over the review with the lads on Monday.
And in between those three tries, we had more positive rugby to enjoy with Jacob Stockdale getting a brace for himself and right at the end, an unbelievable sprint by Earls to hunt down Mattia Bellini who looked to be running the length of the pitch for a bonus point try.
As I left the Aviva the overheard comments were more about the injuries than the actual rugby, a clear sign that the Ireland faithful were mostly satisfied with what they had seen as they went to find a good vantage point for England v Wales.
But the green jerseys weren’t done for the weekend just yet.
Donnybrook Part 2
The Irish Women’s team has had its disappointments over the years, most recently at the World Cup back in August, but overall in the last decade it has been steadily increasing in both success and popularity to such an extent that whenever they take the field now there are a whole host of familiar names both on and off the pitch. I doubt there are many avid fans of Irish Rugby who don’t know Fiona Coghlan, Lynne Cantwell, Niamh Briggs, Ciara Griffin…the list goes on and on.
After a bad start in France last week, this was a chance for the girls in green to get back on track and while it was a touch colder and windier than previous days, the occasion certainly wasn’t any less enjoyable, despite another horrific-looking injury, this time to winger Alison Miller in the early stages.
Naturally, all Irish fans are wishing her and all casualties of the weekend the speediest of recoveries.
The atmosphere was electric in Donnybrook every time we had the ball, with every carry, every pass, every tackle greeted with massive shouts of ‘Come on Ireland!!!’ from one end of the ground to the other.
An early try from Megan Williams settled the nerves somewhat, but from then on it has to be said the Italian defence was very strong and it wasn’t until the closing stages that skipper Griffin was able to get over for two tries to make it a hat-trick of wins for Ireland over an amazing three days.
So, after all my harping on this far down the page, are you now tempted to have a go at a ‘Fan’s Triple Header’ yourself? Or at least take in an extra match or two before this Six Nations is done?
Why not get out to support the boys and girls in green – on the weekends of February 23-25 (v Wales) and March 9-11 (v Scotland), the kick-off times and venues are exactly the same…Under-20s on Friday at Donnybrook (7.15pm), the Men at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (2.15pm), and the Women at Donnybrook on Sunday (1pm).
I guarantee you won’t regret it for a second.