Wednesday 21 February 2018

Lise Hand: Pride in the name of Brian as Green giants do justice to jersey

Fans celebrate after Paddy Jackson scores Ireland’s second try during the RBS Six Nations match against Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Fans celebrate after Paddy Jackson scores Ireland’s second try during the RBS Six Nations match against Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll after the match
Lise Hand

Lise Hand

AS the thundering wedge of warriors drove and drove towards the try-line, their ears filled with the delirious roar rising all around them and their hearts filled with unshakeable resolve, a rainbow materialised over the East Stand of the Aviva Stadium.

But these were no rainbow warriors. Their only colour was green.

Storms had been forecast for the Lansdowne Road ground on Saturday afternoon. High winds, squalls of rain and tempestuous Welshmen were anticipated. The going would be tough for the Irish team facing a formidable band of giants from the valleys in search of their Six Nations Championship hat-trick.

Despite the grim prognostications, there was a sense of Irish defiance in the air as kick-off drew near. The stadium was noisy – though the presence of Welsh supporters always increases the decibel-level wherever they travel. This time though, there was added spice to the Irish song, for there on the touchline was Welsh coach Warren Gatland who broke Brian O'Driscoll's Lion heart last summer in Sydney when he dropped him for the last decisive Test match.

The Irish players could see Gatland as they stood shoulder-to-shoulder for the national anthems. Munster's Peter O'Mahony's bellowed rendition rattled the roof and scared the seagulls. And as the last line rang out, the TV camera lingered on the broad, determined face of Paul O'Connell. A hollered "Seo libh, canaidh Amhran na bhFiann" dissolved into a deafening clamour of cheers. The message was clear.

This one's for Brian.

And from the whistle the Irish team set about their task with focus and ferocity. They defended with discipline, mauled mightily and – faced with big men coming after them in numbers – launched kick after kick high into a surprisingly benign afternoon sky.

The promised storms never arrived, nor did the Welsh whirlwind. Johnny Sexton nailed a couple of penalties, and then as halftime approached, he sent an inspired dink into space close to the Welsh touchline, forcing an Irish lineout. The green shirts roiled and mauled and Chris Henry powered over for his first international try, converted clinically by Johnny.

Halftime, and Wales had yet to score. The mood in the stands was upbeat, tinged with caution. After all, in the same fixture the previous year in Cardiff, the Irish were rampant in the first half and under siege for the second. It was that old ghost again which haunts the team – the spectre of inconsistency.

But best of all, Brian O'Driscoll was still on the pitch. Early on he had been felled by a monster tackle from Scott Williams and stayed on the deck, anxious team doctors around him. It later transpired that he had been badly winded and was simply unable to assure them he was okay until his breath returned.

The Irish fans held theirs, too, until he rose from the turf, shook himself down and trotted back to the fray like the terrier he is. As it turned out it was Scott who later left the field clutching his arm. Karma can be a funny business.

Then a remarkable thing happened in the second half. Ireland remained consistently excellent. Peter O'Mahony was immense, his commitment and courage absolute. The team out-kicked and out-thought the champions. In the stands, the volume increased.

Some of the warriors left the arena – O'Connell, Best, Sexton – and the crowd rose to their feet, applauding their exit.

The sound of 'Athenry' swelled, and on cue a wedge of green shirts drove and drove for the line, scattering vanquished red dragons. The ball squirmed free and off scampered Conor Murray who passed to Paddy Jackson. Try. The final defiant flourish over a Welsh fizzle in the drizzle. 26-3.

The scoreboard gleamed in the rain. Out on the pitch, moments after the whistle, man of the match Peter O'Mahony demonstrated the shift from the rainbow hues of the four provinces to the green of Ireland.

"We haven't done our jersey justice in the last couple of years and we want to make this place a fortress," he declared.

A while later in the post-match press conference, the quartet of Welsh coaches couldn't hide their dismay. Four glum faces faced the media. Warren Gatland offered no excuses. "It was a bad day at the office," he said. "Ireland were outstanding."

As dusk fell, so too did a hard rain. As the last happy fans straggled away, a tall lad who looked no stranger to a rugby ball, passed a woman on Lansdowne Road. "Lovely evening," he greeted her as the drops cascaded off him.

She looked up at the dark sky. "You wouldn't put a Paul O'Connell out in it," she said, and they both laughed.

Almost three decades ago, another Irish captain, Ciaran Fitzgerald asked of his team in the heat of battle, "Where's your f**king pride?"

Now another team in another era has rediscovered it.

Pride. Never has one small word meant so much to so many people.

Irish Independent

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