Monday 24 April 2017

Generosity of GAA hosts will never be forgotten

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

No sooner had Geordan Murphy walloped the ball high into the Cardiff stand and referee Wayne Barnes blown his final whistle to confirm a first Six Nations Grand Slam for Ireland, were we all asking ourselves the question: how do you follow this?

Well 12 months on, and with the title -- and most probably another Grand Slam -- on the way to France, Declan Kidney's Ireland run out today in their final match of the campaign on the verge of finishing runners-up and securing a Triple Crown to make it two in a row and our fifth in seven years.

And it's a fine achievement considering it took just one year short of a hundred to put together our previous five.

I never came remotely close to winning a Triple Crown, however that doesn't demean the very privileged honour of representing Ireland one iota but it does put into perspective just what it takes to string together successive wins against England, Wales and Scotland. Those who denigrate the honour and dismiss it as some sort of consolation prize do the game in this country a great disservice.

The importance of today's Triple Crown opportunity has been re-emphasised many times over by Declan Kidney, Paul McNaughton, Brian O'Driscoll and the entire squad and backroom staff over the past week. Yes, it's the fond farewell to Croke Park but what better way to do it than by way of the most meaningful piece of silverware next to the Six Nations title itself.

heroes

Karl Mullen, Jack Kyle, Jimmy Nelson and the legendary heroes of 1948 followed up the Grand Slam of that year by way of the Triple Crown again the following year. So, wouldn't it make for perfect symmetry now should the Slam winners of 2009 follow it up with a Triple Crown victory this year?

But not for a minute are we losing the run of ourselves and taking today's opposition for granted -- far from it -- but please can we have some balanced perspective as to what a Triple Crown is and what it takes to string together back-to-back wins against each of the other three home nations.

As for Croke Park? Well, as a nation we owe an immense debt of gratitude to former GAA President Sean Kelly and former Director General Liam Mulvihill and everyone involved in the GAA for bringing these three wonderful sporting years about.

On a personal level, my earliest trek to Croker was with my friends to take part in the Primary School Sports. In my NCPE/Thomond College days the Nally Stand was the regular haunt when supporting Jimmy Deenihan, Ogie Moran, Mick and Pat Spillane, Johnny Tobin, Brian Talty, Timmy Murphy, Colm Honan, Richie Bell, Denis O'Boyle, Fran Ryder, Brian Mullins et al with their respective counties.

I'm looking forward to the return to Lansdowne Road, but we leave Croker with the most incredible memories. My pecking order of great rugby events as a player, journalist and rugby lover embracing World Cup finals, European Cup finals and Lions Test series, would probably have had Munster's beating of the All Blacks in 1978 just ahead of the first Lions Test win (remember a certain young Irish centre's extraordinary try?) at the Gabba, Brisbane in 2001.

But all that was until the passion-filled evening of Saturday, February 24, 2007 -- the most incredible match, the most extraordinary occasion, the most fulfilling experience of my life bar none. The fervour and pride in 'Amhran Na bhFiann' was matched by the most extraordinarily respectful silence for 'God Save the Queen'.

You could have heard a pin drop in Croke Park coming up to 5.30 on that historic Saturday evening. It felt so good to be a rugbyman, to be a sportsman, but more than anything to be an Irishman in the new Millennium. Without the generosity of the GAA and its members at every level, that day and the last three mutually beneficial years, would never have happened. The IRFU owes the GAA an immense debt of gratitude and never, ever must we forget it. And could there be a more appropriate way of taking leave for now than by way of the 2010 Triple Crown?

But first to the task in hand of Scotland this evening. The biggest issue is not complacency -- as Kidney and his players can control that -- but public expectation.

The Scots come to Croke Park looking to avoid a third wooden spoon in the same seven-year period it has taken us to amass four, possibly five, Triple Crowns. Our record in recent years is good -- but prior to 2000 (when the Five Nations became Six) we couldn't buy a win over our Celtic cousins.

From 1989, in the next 12 championship games we played against Scotland, we drew just one (in 1994) and lost the other 11. So those who now take victory over the Scots almost for granted, be warned.

There are signs that the Scots are re-establishing their competitive edge during this campaign. I'm a fan of Andy Robinson; I like the way he goes about his business and wears his heart on his sleeve at all times.

Expect that unashamed passion to manifest itself in a no-holds-barred braveheart blow-out later today. And with defence coach Graham Steadman on board, they have inside information. Against England, the midfield of Graeme Morrison and Nick De Luca looked lively, while the traditional strength of Scotland's back-row -- comprising the three 'Bs', Kelly Brown (if fit), John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie -- seems to be in good stead.

But the Scots will target the Irish scrum. The outcome of that will of course determine so much of what goes on immediately behind, but the clash of the respective back-rows could and should provide a fascinating scrap both in individual and collective terms. It's also a big day for Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton and Keith Earls as they look to claim their first substantial trophy at this level.

Think of Irish playing legends like Ray McLoughlin, Tony O'Reilly, Bill Mulcahy, Noel Murphy, Tommy Kiernan, Syd Millar, Ronnie Dawson, Mick English, Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, Phil O'Callaghan, Ken Kennedy, Alan Duggan, Mick Molloy, Ken Goodall, Niall Brophy, Barry Bresnihan, Barry McGann, Roger Young, Tom Grace, Kevin Flynn, Johnny Moloney, Sean Lynch to name but a few who never won a Triple Crown. Try telling any of them the trophy on offer today is some sort of consolation.

And forget points difference and all that nonsense in relation to what happens in Paris. The destiny of the Six Nations trophy is in French hands and is theirs to lose. Out of respect to the Scots, and on the basis of the only realistic aspiration set by Kidney, this is about today and about winning the Crown -- and we will do it.

And not because it is pre-destined, written in the stars or any such last-day Croke Park romantic nonsense, but because we have better players, playing more confident rugby at this point in time.

Irish Independent

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