O'Gara-Stringer partnership best in world game
Declan Kidney made a horrendous mistake last Saturday. He brought in Ronan O'Gara and Peter Stringer far too late. That such an experienced coach should have ignored the obvious against the Springboks when he had at his disposal the best half-back combination in the world is a mystery that only Columbo could solve.
I have been watching international rugby since 1946 -- the post-war year of unofficial matches when the resuming Irish lost all four games and only France awarded caps -- and in all that time since, I've never seen a more gifted passer of the ball than Stringer.
In the 1960s there was the great Australian, Ken Catchpole, who was also a lightning passer. But his passes were short, unlike those rocketing missiles which Stringer gifts to his outside backs.
I wonder what thoughts must have crossed Kidney's mind when he observed that flash of a pass that enabled O'Gara to luxuriate for that extra fraction of a second, before his piece of artistry which presented the try to Tommy Bowe. This is not to denigrate the highly talented Jonny Sexton and Tomas O'Leary, or the importance of stressing that Ireland are lucky to have such a quartet.
Not that the impact of the O'Gara-Stringer partnership on the game is meeting with universal acclaim. One 'expert' -- who hails from across the Irish Sea -- considers that O'Gara will be chiefly remembered for his considerable longevity.
In New Zealand, they are even more involved in rugby culture than Wales. Yet, apart from that first World Cup in 1987, the All Blacks have failed ever since to make an impact -- except, of course, physically, where talented out-half Dan Carter can indulge himself nowadays behind his gargantuan colleagues.
Ireland's problem is the traditional one: insufficient strength in the front- five, which will probably be our downfall next year at the World Cup. That Paul O'Connell is nearly fit again is good news for Ireland, but one swallow does not make a summer.
Our basic problem -- as was made clear in that intriguing series on TG4 'Gualainn le Gualainn' ('Shoulder to Shoulder') -- is our small population, which ranks as the lowest rugby population among the major nations.
That's the reality and there's nothing much we can do about it, except give the big boys a run for their money as often as we can.
But as for the best laugh of the rugby week, it has to be the bleating about New Zealand hooker Keven Mealamu being banned for head-butting against England. The All Blacks' assistant coach Steve Hansen proclaimed: "He is a one special person. He hasn't got a dirty bone in his body. He is not a dirty player. He never has been."
You don't say? Never has been?
I wonder if Hansen witnessed the end of Brian O'Driscoll's Lions' captaincy back in 2005 when Mealamu and his captain Tana Umaga perpetrated that infamous spear tackle, each taking a leg of Ireland's star centre and pummelling him head-first into the ground. Oh, maybe it was an accident.