Tuesday 17 October 2017

Guts, grit and glory on a day that will live long in memory

Murrayfield the scene of incredible day - and night - for Irish heroes

Lise Hand in Edinburgh

Out on the darkened pitch, what looked like an Irish wedding in the wee small hours was in full swing.

A bunch of lads in their best Sunday suits were bounding about like mad yokes, arms either wrapped around each other's shoulders or raised to the starry sky, punching the air.

"Sweeet Caroliine," warbled Neil Diamond through the stadium speakers."WOAH, OH, OH," bellowed a joyous, pogoing pack of players - among them Tommy Bowe, Ian Madigan, Rory Best and Paul O'Connell, his face wreathed in a grin as wide as Edinburgh's estuary, the Firth of Forth.

Minutes earlier the entire Ireland squad had fizzed down the tunnel like Champagne from an uncorked bottle and poured on to the green sward of Murrayfield to claim their prize - the silver Six Nations championship trophy.

Fans (L to r) Shea Cooney 10 from Drogheda, Andrew Barry 9 from Crumlin & Daniel Jordan 9 from Castleknock during the homecoming yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Fans (L to r) Shea Cooney 10 from Drogheda, Andrew Barry 9 from Crumlin & Daniel Jordan 9 from Castleknock during the homecoming yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Rob Kearney at Dublin Airport with the Six Nations trophy. Photo: PA
Rob Kearney, Ian Madigan, Tommy Bowe, Rory Best, Sean Cronin and Luke Fitzgerald celebrate after winning the RBS Six Nations. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Paul O'Connell is pictured with supporter Aidan Shanagher, Dundrum, Dublin. Photo: Brendan Moran
Jared Payne celebrates with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship trophy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Sean O'Brien with Irish fan Jane O'Rourke (7) from Castleknock, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney

And oh what a sight greeted them. For there'd been a change of plan - in fairness it had been the sort of day when plans had been ripped up and stomped into the turf of the Stadio Olympico, of Murrayfield and of Twickenham.

If Ireland were to somehow defy the odds and retain the trophy, the original plan had been to present the team with their spoils of war in an empty stadium. But the hospitable Scots were having none of it. Instead, they installed giant screens on the concourse within the stadium and kept the beer-taps running, so the Irish fans could watch England v France. After all, there was a chance it might be the Championship decider. It was a gesture akin to a kind soul inviting a pub-full of strangers back to their gaff after the bar-shutters rolled down.

But at 12.30pm on a sunny Scottish afternoon as Italy v Wales got under way in Rome, nobody had a clue whether the unscheduled soiree in Murrayfield would be a party or a wake, once the final whistle blew in Twickenham around 7pm.

For it was all about the points accrued by contenders England, Ireland and Wales, and the endless permutations of the rugby theorem were enough to put the heart crossways on Pythagoras.

In the snug press room within the stadium, a posse of Irish sports journalists watched gloomily as a wonderful Wales ran amok, raining down eight tries. "Ah sh*te," observed one lad succinctly. But then in the dying moments, Leonardo Sarto scampered over the Welsh try-line. "Good man, Sarto," said the same chap gleefully. Sure Sarto even sounds like an Irish nickname.

Minutes later, Paul O'Connell led out his troops to roars from a jittery green army packed into the stands. Thanks to the late Italian try, Ireland had to beat Scotland by only 21 points. Only 21. Seven penalties and/or drop goals. Three converted tries. Three Hail Marys and an Our Father.

And what unfolded was a sort of Murrayfield miracle. Surely coach Joe Schmidt must've decreed, "Go forth and play like men possessed." And they did. Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony were immense; Cool Hand Luke Fitzgerald in the thick of every battle. And who else but Big Paulie could plunge over for the opening try after five minutes, both a score and a loud declaration of Ireland's intent.

In the stands, the jangling of frayed Irish nerves was louder than the singing. It's hard to belt out 'Athenry' when you're holding your breath. The 21-point gap was almost closed. But oh Johnny. Old hands know that when Sexto takes a penalty, to watch the man and not the flight of the ball. If he peels away immediately, the job's oxo. If he stands and watches, the kick is going awry. Twice he froze, still as a statue as six precious points evaporated.

Ireland may live to regret it. Jangle, jangle.

Still, a mighty 40-10 at the whistle. A lot magnificently done, nothing more to do, but wait and watch and calculate the points. England needed to beat France by a whopping 26 of them.

A short while after kick-off in Twickenham, Joe Schmidt and Paul O'Connell arrived for the press conference, taking a breather from the post-match dinner - and crunch match vigil - with the Scotland team. "It's just a roller-coaster. Normally you'd have some degree of say in the direction the roller-coaster is going and how many times it's going to spin," Joe explained. "We're hoping when the ride finishes, we're still in front."

But no scary roller-coaster could match the dizzying, heady highs and plunging lows which buffeted every green-clad follower for an agonising 80 minutes.

In the dusk, the giant screens in the concourse illuminated an emerald sea of tension as English and French players ran pell-mell over the try-lines. "Allez les Bleus" roared Irish and Scots, hearts in mouth and beers in hand. At times, fans turned away, unable to watch. Tick-tock. England furiously seeking one last winning try to snatch the Championship from us. Dear God, no Gallic flair, lads - just boot the bloody thing away to safety.

Dark falls on Murrayfield, England players fall to the ground and delirium lights up Edinburgh. In a heartbeat, the entire Lower West Stand is stuffed with thousands of Irish fans going completely balubas.

As the Irish team burst on to the pitch, it was clear the end to the gut-wrenching tension and the ingestion of a few beers has turned to pure adrenaline. A little later, a buzzing captain told reporters of the torture of the wait. "When you're in the heat of battle, those nerves don't come into it," Paul revealed. "When you are sitting there at a table with a few of the lads with a beer in front of you, it's like being a supporter, you're completely powerless as to influencing the result." Welcome to our world, big fella.

Out on the battlefield-turned-dance-floor, green spotlights swept over the clamorous crowd boiling over in the darkened stand. "Hands touching hands," they all sang. Also U2's 'Beautiful Day' and - how utterly appropriate - 'Living on a Prayer'.

How we all had done so throughout the longest day, while our majestic warriors had kept their faith in each other. "I wouldn't put it down to luck, but for three games to go like that, for us to come out on top, maybe someone is smiling down on us," pondered Paul. "But it was an incredible day."

An incredible day drifted into an unforgettable night. And oh how much this party under the Scottish stars meant to the team. Under their sharp suits, the green shirts are forever grafted on to their skin. They soaked up the joy and laughed into the night sky, drinking in the scenes of exultation.

Each player took turns to raise the shiny trophy (it was a replica, though - the real McCoy was languishing in Twickenham where England Expected. Ooops). Jamie Heaslip clowned about, wearing the lid atop his head like a crown.

"This is just brilliant," yelled Conor Murray to his captain. Paul just smiled and smiled. Our rock of ageless.

Guts, grit and glory. Was there ever a day like it?

Sweet Ireland. Good times never seemed so good.

Irish Independent

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