Lise Hand: Try, try, and try again as stubborn Scots are swept away
THE rain and gales of recent days had faded, leaving in their wake a bright blue sky. The weather in Dublin 4 was cold and calm – perfect conditions for the opening match of Ireland's Six Nations campaign.
But there were little gusts of nervousness blowing around the stands of the Aviva stadium.
They weren't emanating from the Irish team, who were warming up on the immaculate pitch as countdown to the opening match ticked by.
The nervous air was billowing about the stands. There were any number of reasons. For a start, Ireland were favourites to beat Scotland – and without the comfort-blanket label of underdog, the Irish always feel an upset is inevitably inscribed upon the stars.
And then there was the uncertainty of which Ireland would show up for the curtain-raiser. Would it be the lifeless team who were rightly hammered by Australia in November, or the marauding band of brothers who played out of their skins a week later against the All-Blacks in a match that ended in last-minute heartbreak?
Which Ireland would show up? Would they survive without the towering presence of the injured Sean O'Brien? Ah well, at least the towering presence of captain Paul O'Connell was a huge reassurance.
But then, at 1.30pm word came through. O'Connell was out – felled not by injury, but by a chest infection which tackled him like a thief in the night.
So, in the minutes before the whistle sounded at 3pm, there were nerves. Winning this Six Nations seems more urgent than usual – the light has dimmed on the green jersey in recent years as the blue of Leinster and red of Munster joust for glory in European competition.
And everyone wants a fairy-tale ending for warrior-in-chief Brian O'Driscoll, who was about to become the most capped Irish player, garnering his 129th cap with this match.
There was a hope that his reward for 14 years of blood, sweat, tears, triumph, talent and courage in a national shirt would be Ireland winning the Grand Slam in Paris next month, where rugby's Brian Boru announced his arrival with a hat-trick of tries in the fortress of Stade de France in 2000.
Pipe-dream or possibility? Given the inconsistency of this squad, nobody knows. Hence the nerves.
As the rugby crowd – exuding its usual Six Nations scent of beer, burgers and Chanel No 5 – poured down Lansdowne Road, many of the younger fans stopped to buy BOD face-masks which were doing a brisk trade outside the stadium entrance.
"He's like a hero in our house. My brothers fight all the time, but they all agree about him," explained 16-year old Dubliner Ciara Farrell.
The team lined up for the national anthems. There was lots of experience in the Irish ranks including Rob Kearney, earning his 50th cap. But no Paul O'Connell, with Ulsterman Dan Tuohy given the daunting task of filling his formidable boots.
The anthems played, the whistle blew and finally the hunt for glory was under way. But for the first 38 minutes, the only fireworks in evidence were the ones which were let off by the IRFU before the game.
Scotland dominated, but couldn't make it pay. Johnny Sexton scored a brace of penalties. Scotland notched up one.
Then two minutes before the close of the first half, Ireland sparked to life. Sexton gambolled up the field, then threw a superb ball to man of the match and hastily-crowned captain Jamie Heaslip, who was dragged into touch in the corner. But everyone felt a try was within reach – and sure enough, on the stroke of half-time, Andrew Trimble went over. It was 11-3. Nerves settled.
Scotland were first to score when play resumed. But those three points were to be their last. After that, it was all Ireland. Heaslip barged over the line, and then Rob Kearney celebrated his 50th cap with a third try.
By the end, Joe Schmidt was firing out substitutes to beat the band – Leinster prop Marty Moore got his first run out in a green shirt. But with the next game against Wales a mere six days away, the coach was taking no chances with his key men.
In the end, 28-6 was a comfortable victory against a stubborn but mediocre Scottish team. The cheer for the Irish team at the end was one of relief rather than joy unbounded.
There is still a long road to go – and next up is Wales and their coach Warren Gatland.
Ireland has a bit of unfinished business with that fella, on behalf of Brian the Lionhearted. Bring it on.