Sunday, February 04, 2007

Imperfect Ireland Survive Millenium Bug

'Phew!', I believe was the word that sums up any reaction to yesterday's messy win for Ireland over Wales.

Phew, that we don't look silly after all our confident talk about that thing which we will not mention here again, but which begins with the letters G and S and almost ended yesterday in the Millenium Stadium.

Phew, that next week's welcoming party for France, a selectively convened group of 82,000, will not be deflated by the disappointment of anti-climax.

And phew, because, hopefully that means we've got a dog of a performance out of our system.

It would be great if, over the next phew, sorry, few days, we got further cause for relief with positive news of Brian O'Driscoll's fitness, after the captain's worrying hamstring injury sustained yesterday. Even those of us whose knowledge of physiology and anatomy is restricted to knowing which limbs our trousers go on understand that "oooh, the hamstring's a bad one". A healthy O'Driscoll is a prerequisite to have any chance of winning of the unmentionable thing that begins with G and S.

So was that just a rusty team feeling their way into their work in the rather testing environment of a passion-drunk Cardiff, or a troubling demonstration of Ireland's limitations?

Certainly thoughts of future glories seemed miles away in the first half. Wales asked Ireland difficult questions and, like a slow-witted boy faced with a disciplinarian headmaster, Ireland stuttered and hesitated in reply. Stephen Jones kicked demonically, picking out Andrew Trimble's discomfort with the sweeping up part of the winger's duties as a key area of weakness.
Trimble cleared his lines in a manner that suggested he should have had L-plates on his boots, and the momentum was with Wales.

Of course the Ulsterman's kicking was a masterclass compared with how Ronan O'Gara was faring. Mishit, scuffed or ballooned, O'Gara's stock-in-trade betrayed him repeatedly. Clearances sat harmlessly in front of the Welsh back three, touches were missed and one penalty effort in particular was clobbered unpleasantly well left.

Dwayne Peel, Jones and James Hook were choreographing a bravura Welsh performance; Peel gave a stunning display of scrum-half play, and only the convention of giving the Man of the Match award to a player from the winning team denied him a deserved sponsors' nod.

With all the talk about Wales pummelling us in the scrum (puh-lease) it turned out to be the line-out that banjaxed Ireland yesterday. Eddie O'Sullivan mentioned how the noise in stadium made the calls difficult to hear, Ireland having rejigged their line-out repertoire after the autumn. Rory Best certainly appeared to be playing the deaf grandma to a patient Paul O'Connell, and the absence of clean ball helped scupper Ireland.

But just when the eBay Croker ticket touts were beginning to worry about the value of their investment, Ireland received a sprinkling of fortune. That is, apart from the fortune that had prevented them having a man sin-binned early on with Wales on top. Ronan O'Gara punted a clearance that had sufficient meat on it to have the home fans clearing their throats to jeer it all the way past the goal line.

However, upon its arrival just short of the try line, the ball skewed left, going into touch just inches from the line. Somehow - albeit Ireland would have several more moments of stress after that - that moment seemed to lift the worst of the day from the visitors, and, like clearing fog, they were able to navigate their way home from there.

The nasty cut suffered by Denis Hickie turned out to be a happy twist of fate too. It allowed Geordan Murphy's introduction as a blood sub, during which time he caught his own garryowen and contributed a pass which culminated in O'Driscoll's try. Murphy's spell on the field was, in proportion to his time on it, invaluable. Aw, can he not stay, we thought?!

All throughout, Gordon D'Arcy and Denis Leamy had never exhibited the lower than usual standards of some of their team-mates. Leamy, incidentally, pulled a few catches from above his head in a manner suitable to Croke Park on days of its traditional usage. D'Arcy's tackling had helped an Irish defence keep the Welsh largely well clear from the line, but it was his slippery run, drilling into the Welsh cover which led to O'Gara's clinching try.

What emerges from yesterday - a bad day at the office, all told - is the fact that, when certain of Ireland's players were off colour and parts of the team's game not functioning, there was a reservoir of class sufficient to, in the end, complete the win in an almost businesslike manner.

It is certainly a relief to know, that, even when Ireland are stinking up the place, a Murphy or a D'Arcy or a Leamy or an O'Driscoll is likely to arrive with a can of Airwick, especially with the seismic afternoons ahead over the next fortnight.

One again - phew!

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Blogger Tom the Tim said...

It can only get better. Tom, or perhaps not. Ireland are not very good at being favourites. It goes against the culture of the underdog.

1:14 p.m.  

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