Monday, February 12, 2007

Grand Slam Slips Away On An Epic Day

Amid the portentious fanfare and endless talk of history that greeted the first ever rugby international at Croke Park, it became clear by Saturday evening that the Ireland v France had another lesser, but unquestionable significance: that of a decider for this year's Six Nations championship, and possibly, the Grand Slam.

It was fitting then, with so much at stake, that it was, as Eddie O'Sullivan put it, "the bounce of a ball" that decided the game in the end.

The particular bounce O'Sullivan had in mind was the one which took the French restart (after Ronan O'Gara's seemingly victory-fastening penalty) back into Gallic hands and eventually over the line in Vincent Clerc's piercing dart.

Saturday's fixtures had shown the deficiencies of the other combatants to a degree that ratcheted up the Croke Park intense-ometer several unnecessary notches. Italy matched England up front and only lost due to greater indiscipline. Both sides were uninspired in possession, and the boot of Jonny Wilkinson will not contribute enough points to compensate for their lack of backline firepower.

Scotland and Wales played a harem-scarem 80 minutes which, if engaging, was not in the same the same caste of quality as yesterday's match. Scotland played like Scotland should, rucking ferociously and recycling more enthusiastically than a Tory politician looking for green kudos. Much like England, however, they lack the line-breaking devilment in the backs to capitalise on good work up front.

So, yesterday the bounce of a ball decided the Six Nations.

Did it? Or did Ireland just run out of luck? The team that robbed poor old Italy at Lansdowne last year through Tommy Bowe's try that never touched the ground; that squeezed past poor old England at Twickenham a few weeks later through an improbable late try; that got to burnish its reputation in the Autumn against depleted Australian and South African outfits; that did a Jedi mind trick on the referee in Cardiff last week ("I am going to foul incessantly in the ruck and get away with it". "Yes, you are".) - was the ball due to bounce the other way for once?

Ireland have, of course, made their own luck. They've been good enough to take advantage of fate's loose morals and it has often got them out of jail. Not yesterday, however. Going into the plush Croke Park dressing rooms at half time only two points down certainly seemed like an escape from death row. France had dominated and around the time Rafael Ibanez touched down for the first try in the Greatest Stadium on Earth And No Mistake, our paté-wolfing friends were playing with that bristling momentum that has destroyed us so often in the past.

But Ireland were almost good enough again to turn fortune their way. Good enough to heave the seemingly unstoppable flow of the match the other way. Good enough to concoct a move that showcased both their ability to bludgeon back the initative and also the capacity for improvisation at the crucial moment. O'Gara's dummy, Hickie's vision, Horgan's line, Wallace's hands and O'Gara's foresight to have seen it all before it happened - all manifestations of the brilliant rugby minds this Irish team possesses.

Having survived near-capitulation in the first half, the second period provided the game that the occasion deserved. It was ceaseless, enthralling and, by the time Ireland's spectacular maul won them that late penalty to go four points clear, it must have been deathly exhausting. France's restart bounced beyond Ireland's tired grasp, as did Clerc through John Hayes fingers.

It was a day for the epic, cacophonous and historic. It drew the Herculean from the game, the players' endeavours rising to the level of the decibels that the crowd generated. Ireland gave everything, but couldn't turn fortune their way again.

On such days, God is often in the details. Like the bounce of a ball.

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Anonymous Cahony said...

It's Monday afternoon, still I could cry.

1:37 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

I know, I know. Let it all out, you'll feel better. Well you probably won't. But you will when we beat England.

2:06 p.m.  
Anonymous Cahony said...

I'm afraid not really. 4th year in a row, we're overdue taking the next step from beating the auld enemy.

The only thing that will heal yesterday is a victory on September 21st, it being on home soil for the French would be a sufficient twist of the knife to make up for the last few 6Ns and 2003.

3:40 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

You're right of course. Beating England has become like the FA Cup final - an annual event that nobody gets excited about anymore.

Good question though: If you could have one victory over France in 2007, would it be in the World Cup and a possible easy path to the semis, or in the 6 nations and a possible Grand Slam?

4:37 p.m.  
Anonymous Cahony said...

Hi Tom,

Good question. I'd go for the WC game by a long long shot. With a victory over France (oops, Hi There Argentina!) we would have a reasonable route to a final berth, or at least be confident of a SF. This is the last WC for this group of players, they can have a couple more tilts at a 6N/GS before they break up completely.

Even besides that fact, to beat France in France at a WC would be simply out of this world. I know people will argue to actually win something is more important than getting to a final or S/F of another tournament no matter how important that other tournament but I don't buy that as an absolute argument.


9:26 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just got round to reading the article now Tom. Good summing up of our present situation, we definitely have rode our luck in many a close encounter. Still hard to swallow though. Thought it was one of the most resilient displays from any Irish sporting team ever, which just makes it even harder to take. Friday evening and i still got a bit bleary-eyed reliving those final moments through your article. Sniff!

5:39 p.m.  

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