Vincent Hogan: Irrespective of what the next two months bring, these men already stand as the greatest this country has ever produced
Published 31/01/2011 | 05:00
Flushed away in the despondency of Ireland's Six Nations' loss to Scotland last March was a gentle, ecumenical secret. The team planned a memorable farewell to Croke Park that, naturally, had not factored defeat into the gesture.
Victory would have secured a fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons and, through the attendant blizzard of flashbulbs, the players intended donning GAA county jerseys.
For many of them, playing in the stadium had carried a genuine emotional weight that they considered important to acknowledge.
Croker had, after all, been their Grand Slam base in '09 and -- set against the tortuous leap of faith the GAA had taken in amending Rule 42 of its own Constitution -- the players yearned for a suitably grand exit.
So, rather than the customary shirt swap with opponents, the plan was to come to the touchline, pull on their individual county's colours and do a lap of the field in garb appropriate to the surrounds.
Scotland were flying in to Dublin not having won a Six Nations game against Ireland since 2001 and looking to avoid the so-called 'wooden spoon'. The bookies had Declan Kidney's men at a penal 1/7 for victory and wouldn't offer any better than evens on the Scots not scoring a try.
If it had been a prizefight, Scotland could have sold advertising on the soles of their boots.
But, of course, the ticker-tape parade never came to pass. Scotland won 23-20, Dan Parks nailing a difficult, injury-time penalty and Ireland handed back the keys to the big house, sheepish as tenants who've left behind a lurid, great carpet stain.
The jersey-swap plan had been entirely a players' initiative and one designed simply to convey a debt of gratitude. Of course, hindsight curses them now with a deduction that maybe they were getting ahead of themselves. Guilty perhaps of planning the book launch before writing the last chapter.
So be it.
If any group has earned the right to a ripple in concentration, it is surely this one. And how difficult is it to appreciate the basic generosity of their thinking? There are too few 'thank yous' in the world today.
On Saturday, Kidney spoke of how the squad heading to Rome next weekend would "love to win for everybody, even more now". He was referring, essentially, to our busted wheelbarrow of an economy and the need -- maybe more than ever -- for sport to offer people little windows of escape.
History won't be kind to the Celtic Tiger years. The market classes took the deeds of this place to a poker table, blew everything and the soundtrack now is unremitting gloom. Just stooge politics and rampant hand-wringing.
Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell can't do much about that. They can't wrestle IMF hands from the nation's pockets. What they can do is remind us of the best of ourselves.
It is, essentially, what they've been doing for a decade or so anyway and, beginning in Stadio Flaminio on Saturday, the hope is that they can continue through and out the far side of the General Election.
A decent Six Nations run would be a welcome distraction from the verbal incontinence looming, albeit six months ahead of the rugby year's most compelling business.
The World Cup, you sense, is the great, untended itch for these men now. It has to be.
O'Driscoll and O'Connell have everything else on their career CVs now: Slams, Triple Crowns, Heineken Cups, Magners Leagues, even captaincy of the Lions. They are rightly regarded as two of rugby union's greatest leaders. Yet, neither has known the experience of a decent World Cup run and, for both, September in New Zealand will be the last shot.
This team has already earned the right to be judged differently to previous generations. Bear in mind that, up to '04, Ireland had won a grand total of six Triple Crowns. Just half a dozen stretching all the way back to the late 19th century.
This group has almost matched that total in seven seasons.
No question, they'll have the foot to the floor again these next few weekends, doing their damnedest to win another championship. And, face it, we'll be glad of the distraction.
But, in many ways, their Six Nations point is proven. Irrespective of what the next two months bring, these men already stand -- comfortably -- as the greatest this country has produced. A momentous World Cup campaign is the only outstanding debt now.
And they only owe it to themselves.