Thursday 27 April 2017

Billy Keane: Hurting men of Valleys make visitors pay in bumps and bruises

Wales’ George North and Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw collide in Cardiff. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Wales’ George North and Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw collide in Cardiff. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The moon over Cardiff was washed in a passing grey cloud formation but it was still possible to make out the all but full shape.

There was a little bit unfilled as if a small boy had stolen a finger of chocolate from the circumference .

The Chinese, who are no fools, maintain the days leading up to the moon are even worse than those in the full of the moon itself. The theory is if the moon can move oceans surely there has to be an effect on the ebb and flow of human emotions? Ireland lost and we will have to find the reasons.

But first we will have a musical interlude.

The music was everywhere. On the way to the Millennium Stadium there were brass bands, a gypsy ensemble and several renditions of 'The Fields of Athenry', all of which were very much influenced in terms of volume and air by the amounts of drink consumed.

The streets were thronged and so was the middle of the road. The city centre is closed to traffic on match days.

There was a queue outside O'Neill's on Mary Street that would fill a country pub for six months. But the best of all was the singing within the ground. The Welsh turned their national stadium in to a miners' chapel. 'Bread of Heaven' is the body and blood of Wales and the Welsh invest their every emotion in the singing. The choirs there in the great stadium under lights with the Sistine ceiling pulled in close like drapes is my favourite moment in all of sport. The hymn-singing lifts us to a higher presence.

Promise me you will try to come here sometime.

The music beat the moon and the game was played at a furious pace. There was no cover. Jonathan Sexton went off twice.

The first was for a head injury assessment. I can only imagine his 88-year-old granny Brenda back home in Listowel and his mom Clare praying he would be alright. Jonathan's wife Laura was at the game. The collective prayers were answered and their boy was fine.

But then just before half-time he was yellow-carded but maybe he wasn't a bold boy. He saved a certain try but Wales scored their first two tries when he was off the field. Ireland's handing was poor at times. Murray went off and we were nine points down.

The stadium erupted to Hills and Valleys after that second try. And for once the endless traffic up and down the steps for beer and pee stopped. Wales were on a roll. Ireland fought back for a penalty. Wales ran on to the ball from deep and at pace.

They were hurting after a terrible beating from Scotland.

Rugby is the national game. The Welsh are a proud people who though often conquered were never rightly subjugated.

And they let their hurt be known to their team who responded by playing out of their blood-red skins.

Coming into last quarter the fans were stuck to their seats. It was too exciting to leave. Some men drank so much their bladders were as full as a reservoir in the rainy season. I have never seen so many tipsy people at a rugby game. It was all down to the late kick-off.

We played tipsy at times. Ireland just couldn't get a continuous supply of good ball. Our boys lost lineouts and had more knock-ons than at any time in the Joe Schmidt era.

Then came the cunning little kick from Robbie Henshaw. We had a five-metre scrum and this was game on. But we gave away another penalty and Wales cheered as if Merlin had returned to save his people in their hour of need.

There is often a time in the game and in life itself when an act of valour or of brilliance or a simple error of judgement can shape our destinies. But for Ireland it was the succession of errors that irritated like a non-stop drizzle. We just couldn't get enough phases together to wear out Wales.

But we never gave up. Sexton tormented Wales with the high ball but we just didn't get the breaks from the rebounds. The reserve scrum-half Kieran Marmion kept up the tempo like a drummer in a rock band. Surely Wales would crack. It was all Ireland in that last 20 minutes.

Wales were boarded up and wrapped up like King Tut but somehow they held on.

The break-out came and Wales did what Ireland failed to do - they scored. And so it was that our dreams of Six Nations glory were lost.

I can think of worse countries to lose to. The Welsh choirs were singing 'Bread of Heaven' again and I'd swear I saw the roof of the stadium lift heavenwards.

Ireland as ever gave their all. There was no shortage of courage.

It's not easy to win here but we still have a shot at redemption next week in Dublin against England which is a type of final in itself.

England is scalp worth recovering for and it could be that we will harness the hurt just as Wales did last night.

We have no excuses. The better team won and we died with our boots on. There were times when our hands left us down but our hearts didn't and so there is hope for this Irish team. This is a setback not a calamity. It could be that our autumn campaign took too much out of Ireland and George North's tries sent us south and out.

We will give our Celtic cousins due credit and acclaim in the pubs of Cardiff now. The singing will lift us a little on a night when Wales were worthy winners.

But wouldn't it be a lovely consolation prize if we did beat England?

Irish Independent

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