Monday, March 20, 2006

Ireland Grasp the Hand of Fortune

The best thing about it is this: doesn't it seem a long way from the days of moral victories? When you're sniggering up your sleeve about pilfering a win against England in the dying minutes and getting the benefit of a few decidedly dodgy calls, you know that things have changed. When you can condescendingly console the English, shrugging your shoulders as if to say "them's the breaks lads!", its clear that this Irish team have achieved something significant.

Breaking it down, Ireland have been the beneficiaries of a remarkable sequence of good fortune in this campaign. The two dubious tries against Italy, the timely demise of the hitherto dominant Welsh out-half Stephen Jones, two further calls in their favour against England and the broader happy circumstance of a campaign devoid of serious injuries to key players, Paul O'Connell's absence against Wales excepted.

That said, luck is so much a part of sporting fortunes that to quantify a success without considering it is pointless. The key thing about this campaign, and particularly about Saturday's success at Twickenham, was the Irish team's ability to pounce on the misfortune of others and capitalise on the breaks they were given. For all that Ireland may, on another day, have not been the recipient of those two touchline-width decisions that resulted in their first two tries, on both occasions the sharpness and opportunism of Irish players, namely Shane Horgan and Denis Leamy, meant that those decisions did indeed become crucial, game-turning talking points.

Moreover, there was nothing remotely fortunate about the way that Ireland, three points down with three minutes remaining and mired in their own 22, manufactured the game winning denouement. It must have been heartbreaking for England, a feeling we are used to in Ireland having been reared on the aforementioned moral victories and gallant defeats. However, when Michael Lynagh went over in the dying minutes of the 1991 World Cup quarter-final to snatch victory for Australia after Gordon Hamilton seemed to have won the day for Ireland, it was not robbery - it was the better team proving it.

Similarly on Saturday, when Horgan finished off the match-winning move, we need not have felt embarassed about the result of the contest; can you imagine pedestrian England finding such a thrilling knock-out blow had they been in the same position with the clock ticking down?

There has been a justifiable outbreak of exaltation after Saturday - the winning of the Triple Crown and the beating of England in Twickenham guarantees that. However I feel there is a bit of auto-pilot about the celebrations. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how beating England last year at Lansdowne Road did not carry the same sense of triumph as the previous Spring's victory in London, given how far England had deteriorated in that time. They haven't improved since then and Saturday's game, while thrilling in its narrative, would have been a bad one to lose - as we almost did.

Ireland can now class themselves as a significantly more talented and cohesive team than England. The only department they surpass us in is general beefiness, particularly in the front row. But this is such a crucial area that it almost cost us the game on Saturday, and had England a fraction more inventiveness in their ranks, it would have been telling. England enjoyed slightly more line-breaks than in the previous matches, but ultimately their tries were won through bludgeon rather than beauty.

This is the key for Ireland. There has been much talk about "the next level" in the last few days and blind eye has been turned to the black opening half in Paris. The crux of that reverse was Ireland being unable to secure a physical foothold against the French pack, which left their backs comically trying to toss the ball about while on their heels. The next level will only be reached when the Irish pack is able to - at the very least - match the strength of those of the strongest nations and allow the talent in our back row and backs the momentum to thrive.

That we needed the hand of fortune and the inspirational gifts of our backs to win against an inferior footballing side is a clear demonstration of that.


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