Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ireland Harness History to Trample England

As chance would have it, I happened to be travelling on a flight from London Stansted (although 'Sheffield Stansted' would be almost as appropriate a name for it given its location) to Dublin on Saturday morning. Accompanying me were several hundred members of the English rugby fraternity; their pie-and-ale countenances and Barbour jackets gave them away, if their earthy banter hadn't already.

Even as they read their morning papers, which attempted to set the scene for Saturday evening's thunderous events, they can't have known what they were walking into. On the other side of the Irish Sea a nation had been contextualising itself to a standstill, binding itself up in cultural analysis and historical deconstruction.

The country that flight FR296 landed in had been gazing so intently at its navel that it barely remembered that their visitors were looking to watch a game of rugby, not hear a history lesson.
I'm sure England's travelling supporters' eyes glanced through the think-pieces on what this game meant to the Irish and why they weren't going to rackety old Lansdowne Road this time round. But they probably spent more time worrying about whether the green shoots of their team's recovery under Brian Ashton were about to be trampled by the highly-rated Irish team.

They probably fancied that their pack would do alright, possibly dominate the scrum, but feared that they would struggle to translate their ball into points. They probably hoped for a tight game and that Wilko's boot might edge for England.

By the time half past five ticked round, however, these thoughts were lost in the noise of an occasion that inevitably transcended rugby.

For all that, as we found out against France a fortnight ago, the only satisfactory ending to these epic tales comes on the park. Where that day the volume of the preliminaries seemed like so much pointless hot air when Vincent Clerc crossed to deny Ireland the win, yesterday, pace Seamus Heaney, hope and history rhymed.
It was a good day for rugby, the sport associating itself with so much that was positive. Given that our national sport is currently neither hurling nor gaelic football, but rather Discussing Ourselves And, In Particular, How Far We've Come As A Nation, rugby's association with such a good news day will generate decades of goodwill for the sport.

But back to the 15 against 15 business. The English rugby team has long seemed diminished, especially so in comparison to the last time they attracted so much attention during pre-match pleasantries in Dublin: 2003, and Martin Johnson's eyeballing of Mary McAleese across the red carpet.

Ireland have tougher warriors on their side now, while England have never recovered from the Leicester man's retirement. Jonny Wilkinson, Lancelot to Johnson's Arthur, is back. But the outhalf now resembles one of those rock legends of the 1960s still touring even though all his old bandmates are either dead or vegetarian. When he turns around to jam now, all he sees are plodding session players.

But we're not talking about history, or rock and roll, just rugby. That's what this Irish team are all about; that's why the policy of giving it a lash - especially against the English - has long been jettisoned in favour of ruthless pragmatism. And that's what must have made the loss to France so maddening: that an occasion, or rather the peripherals thereof, usurped the careful planning and finely-tuned psychology that made them sure of their ability to win a grand slam.

The intensity and emotion on the faces of the Irish players as their own anthem played suggested that the peculiar endorphins of the day were flooding their systems dangerously and uncontrollably. Thankfully, the players harnessed them in the most clinical manner possible, turning the crude ore of raw emotion into the gold of a devastatingly convincing performance, England's worst points-against tally in Five or Six Nations history.

The Englishmen on flight FR296 had no idea what was coming.

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Blogger Bock the Robber said...

Exactly right. The football was the thing.

I thought the players' body-language told a lot: they reminded me of the Munster team last year before the semi-final with Leinster. Very calm and purposeful. You knew you were looking at guys who were there on business.

Still, though, it would take a hard man to be unaffected by the moment, wouldn't you think?

11:26 p.m.  
Anonymous paddyc said...

Just a little story from the day that apparently didn’t make it onto de telly.

After Mary Robinson (as one fan behind me called her) had welcomed the players, there was a long delay while she went back to her seat, heightening the expectation around the inevitable start of ‘God Save the Queen’. After all the media palaver, would there be jeers and cat-calls? Worse again, would there be trouble? Surely not, but it only takes a couple of eejits to make a story..

As the crowd waits, hush descends, and the anticipation builds, but then the big screens suddenly cut to a close-up shot of a jolly-looking Bertie, who smiles and gives McAleese a big kiss as she takes her seat. Roughly 81,000 people see this simultaneously and give a great cheer of the ‘wa-heey’ variety. It was an impromptu moment, but with impeccable comic timing, and it simultaneously managed to both dispel any remnants of tension in the crowd, and set exactly the right tone for proceedings. (Something, with the exception of the odd blog or two, the Irish sporting media failed to do last week.)

As to the match, Shane Horgan’s take for his try from Rodge’s ‘cross’ was the Rugby moment of the day for me. Unbelievable stuff, Croker went ballistic.

9:48 a.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

PaddyC - Saw that, classic moment...always rely on a bit of schoolboy humour to save the day.

BtheR: - The Bull is always a bit blubbery before games, but the sight of Flannery did the guy go back to bench after that! "Jaysus Eddie let me at them!"

11:07 a.m.  
Blogger Bock the Robber said...

Well, actually, the word here in Limerick is that Jerry would cry if he spilled his tea.

The Bull, on the other hand, is a different matter.

4:18 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Big girls blouse!

5:30 p.m.  
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