Friday 28 October 2016

It's not just that you won, it's how and when you won

Neil Francis

Published 01/05/2015 | 00:00

Paul O’Connell celebrates at the final whistle in Cardiff
Paul O’Connell celebrates at the final whistle in Cardiff

Years ago I bumped into Jack Kyle at the Grange Golf Club after an RIGS (Rugby International Golf Society) outing. We talked for 20 minutes and the universal picture of the rugby man that the world understood him to be came out in our conversation. A gentle man and a gentleman.

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He was an exceptional individual and a flood of emotions overwhelmed me as I shook hands to say goodbye - respect, reverence and I suppose a smidgeon of envy. At that stage 2009 was a few years away.

As he made his way back to the clubhouse I got the impression he wasn't walking but floating six inches off the ground. This champion, a key component in the 1948 Grand Slam team, whose achievements would be a hard act to follow. Who would be worthy enough to replace them? What calibre of people could dare to emulate their legend?

Ireland, over the course of the years, had plenty of teams with the right stuff but the examination of their nerve and integrity would prove too much. Fifty-odd years later we waited without hope for fulfilment and an elusive Grand Slam.

Somebody would have to walk the grey area between performance and achievement. An Irish team would have to show heroic virtue and endure and persevere like nobody had done in a generation of generations.

Heroes are people who voluntarily and willingly walk into the unknown and in the 2009 season we found a team with ambition and belief. This group signalled they were ready to do something extraordinary.

The size of their achievement is measured by the quality of the people they beat. They also made light of some of their own shortcomings. A point of reference being that they thrived on the back of smaller, more skilful players in their outfield. Skill trumping size all over the pitch. The quality of some of their tries that season, particularly in the French game, was superlative. Their patience while enduring severe provocation in the English game was an exercise in desire and belief.

They had leaders in all sectors, and they were blessed to have Brian O'Driscoll, who scored four exceptional tries at crucial moments. No other team from this island, in any sport, has had an individual within a team with such an exemplar personality, ferocious determination or a range of skills at his disposal - ever!

Tommy Bowe & Jack Kyle 2009
Tommy Bowe & Jack Kyle 2009

Champions are people who understand the responsibility of the occasion and that is what makes them perform.

The ask for the final game against Wales was to succeed when the nation needed them to most. The country, teetering on the brink of economic oblivion, needed something to sustain it and a sporting performance which would rally everyone on the island - and they got it. A performance of incorruptible honesty and grim determination.

Winning is the sweetest feeling in the world when it is achieved at the time it is most needed. The degree of difficulty to deliver that for this country is inestimable.

Sit with me now and tell me that rugby is a minority sport. Tell me that again in the autumn when the whole country expects a new team to deliver. Tell me where an Irish team of any sporting denomination has succeeded in a real team sport at a major international sporting level of standing. The achievement of the team of 2009 stands alone. Time to recognise that.

Sunday Independent

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