Friday 21 October 2016

Sinead Kissane: Our dragon-slaying heroes put a spring in the step of a nation

Published 04/02/2013 | 17:00

Green shoots in Cardiff on the first Saturday of spring? It was what Irish fans were rooting for when around 7,000 descended on the Welsh capital last weekend – daring to dream of how this season could blossom if Ireland managed an opening Six Nations victory over Wales.

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The excitement created by Ireland's win over Argentina last November had wintered well. Supporters were now looking to the Championship in the hope that the spark created against the Pumas would catch fire in this tournament.

It would, wouldn't it?

But folk weren't just chasing their hopes for this Ireland team, they were trying to re-energise their own. Aine Whelan from Wexford soaked up the pre-match atmosphere with her friends under the shadow of the Millennium Stadium. Being there was an experience worth saving for.

"It's depressing at home, there's no money. But if you save your few pennies and get one trip away then it's great to just boost your morale," Ms Whelan said. "The experience is well worth having no bank balance at the end of the week!"

But these occasions are ultimately franked by the bottom line – success. Euro 2012 was renowned for the enthusiasm of the Republic of Ireland fans last summer. But the longer the tournament went on, the more their renditions of 'The Fields of Athenry' began to sound like the lament that it is.

When the same anthem was belted out for the first time in the Millennium Stadium last Saturday after 15 minutes, it was sung with a lungful of pride. Irish fans were off their seats after Brian O'Driscoll produced a pass for the ages to Simon Zebo to score Ireland's opening try.

When he followed it up with an outrageous back-heeled flick to help create Ireland's second try, it was the quintessential 'did-you-just-see-that?' moment.

Bright-eyed and bedazzled fans looked up in wonder at the big screens to watch the replay. And to take a closer look at the future of Irish rugby. "Zee-boo, Zee-boo" was belted out in pockets around the stadium. He was the new sensation and they were humming his tune. With his birthday the day before St Patrick's Day, Zebo was born for spring days like this.

If Zebo's actions were energising the visiting support, then O'Driscoll was haunting the locals. He may have lost the captaincy but he was still the chief with another awe-inspiring and man of the match performance. Even with their own skipper Sam Warburton also a strong contender to captain the Lions this summer, a Welsh couple I spoke to were adamant that O'Driscoll is the man for that role. And that was even before they got back to their seats to witness him score Ireland's third try at the start of the second half.

After an incredibly tense and nerve-wrecking last 20 minutes, the final whistle blew and Ireland had set down their roots in this Six Nations.

Then country became local. Two busloads of around 100 fans from Tullow in Co Carlow had travelled over to support their local hero, Sean O'Brien. The turf-to-terrace relationship was reinforced when O'Brien, along with the rest of the Irish team, returned to the pitch to show their appreciation to the fans.

"Sean was the first man back out on the pitch to salute the crowd. He knew where the Tullow people were and he made sure to come back out after the game finished and wave to them," beamed a proud Tullow man, Seamus Connolly.

And then the Irish fans sprinkled on to the streets under the sky, which was still blue and now bursting with hope. I bumped into two supporters, Donnacha McCormack and Sean Donoghue, who I met on the boat over from Dublin two days previously.

"The Championship is ours to lose now," Sean said, before they skipped off ahead of making their return journey home. It's England's turn to cross the Irish Sea this weekend and play at the Aviva Stadium. And the Ireland fans will be waiting. With a spring in their step.

Sinead Kissane is a TV3 sports presenter and reporter

Irish Independent

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