It had to happen. Without opening with negative vernacular, if this gifted generation of Irish rugby players did not win a major championship, they would have failed to live up to years of expectation.
Ironically, now that it has happened, can one imagine the pressure that will be on this Irish team when they host the superpowers of the South? And again in 12 months time, where they will bid to become only the second team in Irish rugby to defend a European title since Jack Kyle’s fabled team.
It was not the prettiest championship, with Ireland displaying a heady display of steel willed pragmatism to win the title. It was this impressive mental fortitude that saw Brian O’Driscoll’s men; with Coach Declan Kidney’s quiet influence, fulfil the promise of the last decade.
Five Six Nations runners up positions since 2001, three triple crowns since 2004, victories over the Wallabies in 2002 and 2006, the Springboks in 2004 and 2006. This Ireland team had the results and the personal to hoist a championship title.
With no disrespect to Eddie O’Sullivan, who won 50 matches while in charge of Ireland (over 78 matches), there was a psychological aspect missing.
Ireland’s once in a generation players no doubt had the ability, but their lack of the final pieces of their team achievements was a disease. This was the difference between people referring to this as a good Irish team, as opposed to a great Ireland side.
Kidney, the two times Heineken Cup winning coach of Munster, never has re-invented the wheel with his teams, and so it was with his transformation of the national team.
Of course, the quiet man from Cork tries to play down his own role in the makings of this now Grand Slamming Irish side, and does so almost contradictory.
The genesis of the transformation came in December, in a training camp in Galway. There, the team had just come away from a mixed series of autumn internationals. Two victories against Canada and Argentina did nothing to take away from the disappointment of being overrun 22-3 by the All Blacks.
Kidney has repeated stated that he was surprised by the lack of evident self belief.
He believed though—somewhat incongruously—that this was what enabled the players to come through and come back 0-6 down against a very good Welsh team.
But the reality is that it was this old lack of conviction that was conquered, by Kidney, who instilled the right principles and mindsets to his team.
A team that had tasted success at the highest stage through representation of Munster, so it was almost as simple as having the Irish players feel the passion in the green of Ireland as they would in the red of the famous province.
This is a lesson that this Irish side will do well to heed, for it is the only thing that has prevented them from being labelled as greats. Now the challenge will be to sustain and recall the feelings of euphoria and relief that permeated the Ireland dressing room after the match.
But Ireland was certainly not sparkling. This was a grinding Ireland team that only opened up the game if the hard work was already achieved.
Still, the manner in which they came out and blasted Wales away in the opening minutes of the second half effectively won them the Slam.
But it could be considered negative on the game in general if we think along these lines. Despite plenty of tries still being scored, rugby is a game that is won by attitude, precision and defence.
To avoid a cliché, it was their belief and guts that won them the championship and the standing up of Ireland’s senior men—who had plenty of the above mentioned traits.
O’Driscoll was inspirational, but it was the work of the forwards, led by the tireless John Hayes, Ireland’s most capped player and Munster’s hard-nosed open side David Wallace. With Paul O’Connell confirming himself as arguably the world’s best lock forward, it will no doubt be a heavily green tinged Lions pack that arrives in South Africa.
Player of the series: Ronan O’Gara. Maligned for being the weak link in the Irish team (“shut down O’Gara and you shut down Ireland”), he stood up despite not having the natural pedigree of his decorated captain playing outside of him.
Targeted by the Welsh flankers, one must admire how he kept his nerve and guided his team in a performance that sealed the Irish glory.
Ireland: Played five, won five, (points for 121, points against 73)
Ireland 30 – 21 France (Man-of-the-match: Jamie Heaslip)
Italy 9 – 38 Ireland (Luke Fitzgerald)
Ireland 14 – 13 England(Brian O’Driscoll)
Scotland 15 – 22 Ireland (Peter Stringer)
Wales 15 – 17 Ireland (Brian O’Driscoll)
Tries scored: 12 (third best)
Tries conceded: 3 (best in competition)
Upcoming for Ireland:
27 March – Munster vs Glasgow
29 March – Leinster vs Ulster
23 May – Canada vs Ireland
31 May – United States vs Ireland
Likely Irish Lions?
Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, John Hayes, Tommy Bowe, David Wallace, Ronan O’Gara
Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Peter Stringer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Jerry Flannery, Gordon D’acry