Ireland's Grand Slam: What I Learnt

Matthew MaloneyCorrespondent IMarch 22, 2009

As the dust settled on one of Ireland's most historic sporting achievements, the Grand Slam and Six Nations win at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium yesterday, I sat back, Bulmer's in hand, to reflect on the journey Declan Kidney's new Ireland setup had taken.

With success in the bag so early, surely any doubts or uncertainty about last year's appointment of the greatest Irish born rugby union coach of the last decade have been vanquished.

So what did I reflect on? There, are firstly, some obvious things that any observer of Ireland's rugby team can conclude:

O'Driscoll and D'Arcy Are Back

Following an horrendous injury set-back with a broken arm during last year's disappointing Six Nations, Gordon D'Arcy has ousted Paddy Wallace, the initial experiment as first choice, at inside centre.

His try against France, after coming off the bench, seemed to be exactly what was needed to reaffirm what a great player he is, not just to Ireland's supporters, but perhaps to the man himself, after spending so long on the sidelines.

Likewise, Brian O'Driscoll seems like a man reborn, turning in his best Six Nations performance, certainly since 2007, and possibly ever.

Ireland's captain scored four tries in five games and even converted a drop goal against perennial rivals England, in what rugby pundit George Hook described as "the best performance by an Irish captain in living memory."

Declan Kidney Has Made The Difference

Declan Kidney, a humble man by nature will probably put the Grand Slam down to the cliches of hard work, "110% effort," yadda-yadda-yadda.

Undoubtedly the addition of Jon Smit, as forwards coach, and Alan Gaffney, as backs coach, has been a welcome change from the previously stale regime, but it is no coincidence Ireland have come up with a Grand Slam in Kidney's first attempt.

The squad itself hasn't changed much in terms of personnel. In fact, appearance records were broken under his reign, showing his faith in many of the old guard, and, of course, his Munster proteges.

That said, Kidney has turned a wonderful team on paper into a team capable of putting in consistently strong performances which live up to the players club and previous international reputations.

The Future of Ireland Looks Bright

Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney, and Jamie Heaslip, among others, all cemented their places in the team while, like fine wines, David Wallace, Peter Stringer, Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery, and others already established in the team, seem to have become more pivotal to Ireland's fortunes.

Together with a great coach, and the aforementioned star pairing of D'Arcy and O'Driscoll at centre, Ireland should hopefully push on and dominate the Northern Hemisphere. We should now look to realistically become the fourth best team in the world within the coming months, and one of the strongest contenders for the next world cup.

Now, while both of the above, and of course, the historical significance of the Grand Slam itself are obvious to all, here are some more interesting caveats that not all may agree on, but I think are worth pointing out.

Ronan O'Gara is Overrated/We Need A Replacement

The man can hardly tackle. Horror show against England aside (we all have bad days at the office), O'Gara is somewhat of an enigma to me.

From open play, O'Gara as a passer, ball carrier, and tackler, doesn't seem to be able to carry his weight. Inevitably, whenever Ireland lose possession, we can trace it to hopeful grubber kicking from O'Gara or box kicking from his Munster partner in crime, Tomas O'Leary.

Under Eddie O'Sullivan, Ireland relied far too much on O'Gara's kicking to play the territorial game (to our detriment), and against the All Blacks in the autumn, O'Gara may as well have been doing the Hakka for the amount of ball he gave to them.

I know he has recently broken the all time Six Nations points record, but at the least I'm sure everyone can agree Ireland need a viable alternative option at fly-half.

Gallows humour suggests that if O'Gara was to break his leg, Ireland's next best option would be to play O'Gara—with a broken leg. The horrible thing about that is it's probably not too far off.

Tomas O'Leary < Eoin Reddan < Peter Stringer

O'Leary's box kicking really gets to me. I don't know why, but I think it might be down to it being awful.

It's unfair to lambast the guy in his debut Six Nations as first choice scrum half, but when I seen the effect Stringer has had coming off the bench, notably his line break against England and his ability to pass the ball without taking out binoculars, I have to question what O'Leary brings to the table.

Defensive qualities aside, I'm just not convinced Stringer is inferior to O'Leary. In the long run I hope Stringer wins back his place after originally losing Eoin Reddan, another superior competitor to O'Leary.

International Rugby Union Is (Sadly) All About Discipline

This is just a general quib about why rugby can't beat football for me.

Penalties count for too much in rugby union. When you consider that a try is far harder to score than a penalty, and there is only a two point difference (excluding a conversion), it's amazing.

Wales never really got close to landing a try and yet lost by literally one kick from the half way line.

Experimental Law Variations were brought in to try counter that, but there needs to be further tweaking to make sure open play counts for more, and games are not decided by how fussy refs are. This is a debate for another day, but I think tries should count for seven points given the amount of penalties and the level of fly-halves in the modern game.

Well, there you have it. I'm sure there are a lot more positives to take from a great few weeks for Irish rugby, but what I'm really looking forward to now is seeing either Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell lead the Lions out for a successful tour of South Africa this summer.

Both are tremendous players in their own right, but if I'm to be honest, it won't really matter too much as long as both are involved. There's also the Heineken Cup to look forward to in regards to Leinster and Munster, so let's hope some of the international success rubs off on the provincial sides.

More importantly, here's hoping for more Grand Slams!