Saturday 24 March 2018

Young, gifted and green

David Kelly

David Kelly

A special day that offered ephemeral relief from the brutal certainties of existence. Sport's magnificent triviality made wide-eyed, child-like innocents of even the steeliest of witnesses.

A cheery little flow of electric current surged through a cold corner of Dublin on Saturday afternoon and, for a short while at least, we thought nothing of the chill in our bones.

"Isn't it a brilliant sporting moment?" asked Declan Kidney.

Not since the blond blaze of Geoghegan or the dashing menace of Hickie have Irish supporters been thrilled by wing play of such ingenuity, strength and evasion as delivered by Craig Gilroy.

Even before he danced his way to THAT opening try, stepping thrice off his right in a series of joyous jigs, he had invested so much energy and strength into the contest.

If it felt like he belonged on this stage, it was because he knew that he did. And, even though he admitted that, yes, his official debut really did emerge in dream-like formation the night before – notwithstanding the habitual snoring of room-mate Tommy Bowe – the reality was dramatically more authentic.


"It's a moment I'll never forget – after I scored that try being surrounded by the whole team," Gilroy relates. "That's the sort of moment you dream of happening when you first get into the team.

"I really wanted it to happen, so when it did it was just amazing."

From his first action that morning, when he pulled the curtains in his Shelbourne Hotel room, to the emotional congregation with his family after his media duties, Gilroy's awareness of every passing moment ensured a special day would be a momentous one.

"I was getting loads of messages and everything before the game from friends, family and past players," gushes Gilroy. "They just said that first caps were very special and don't let the nerves take over, just really enjoy it, and I think I did that."

It helped that he'd kind of been here before – a hat-trick against Fiji for Ireland, a brace against the Baa-Baas for Ireland, the first player ever to score a try in this revamped stadium.

He had never received an Irish cap, though. He was surprised when Bowe presented it to him before the rest of the squad that morning. Hours later, that feeling of profound togetherness was evident once again.

The exultation from the players that greeted Gilroy's try was something else, an explosion of emotion from an Irish side who have laboured under appalling inconsistency but also unwavering belief in their own and the coach's abilities.

"To score a try against them early on was brilliant, but just to see their joy in it," said Kidney afterwards, all too briefly engaging with emotions so often concealed deep within.

"That spontaneous reaction doesn't always happen in sport. Then the coaches will come in and say you have 90 seconds to take a conversion.

"When we saw the tries and the jumping, the experienced fellas will say, 'get back to the halfway line, I'm not running another 30 yards and then 50 back!'

"I talked about it being infectious in the last couple of weeks. That's what it's like. I think it's the first time I've picked a wannabe rapper."

No, we didn't know what this last line meant either. Call it the generation gap. Perhaps it was a reference to the Beats headphones many of the younger players wear as they snake their way through the tunnel to the dressing-room before games.

Gilroy, whose pimple-dappled chin betrays his youth – he is 21 – at once represents the future but also the now. This country has been far too wary of promulgating its brightest, youngest talent.

"They're ready now," admits Gordon D'Arcy.

Aside from the broad sweeping majesty of Ireland's play then, it was the injection of youth that so energised onlookers. There is a sense of a meaningful beginning to a journey, not merely a youthful fling.

"Hopefully we'll be taking this team to the World Cup," offers Peter O'Mahony. "Hopefully we will have laid down our own markers. We have to take control of this team.

"It's going to be our team for the next few years. We have just got to play well and stick our hands up for selection."

D'Arcy, now a veteran and destined to bequeath his berth to a younger man by the time the next World Cup comes around, has been enthused by the flourishing of youth.

"Initially, you can see that they're confident but they're also finding their feet," he explains.

"But that lasts for a day and then it feels like they've been there for 10 years. But that's a good sign in the squad. When a couple of older guys were removed, it was a seamless transition."

Mol an oige agus tiocfaidh siad. Gilroy, in particular, could not have made a more pressing intervention.

"He has gas, and he has commitment," says Kidney. "If you have those two things, that helps with the clarity. You can have all the clarity you want unless you have somebody to punch the holes."

D'Arcy, as a player, offered a different perspective on his vast skill set. "I told him, 'you're here because you do what you do really well'. And I told him to go out and do that. He did it unbelievably well.

"He's so hard to tackle, he has the ability to shift on both feet. When he's hit, he can spin and keep going. And he chased every ball. Defensively, he was solid. He had an exceptional game for a first cap."

The early try smoothed his passage, as he sashayed beyond three stunned Puma defenders; Gilroy arguably should have passed before seizing his moment. That he acknowledges this amplifies the maturity oozing from his pores.

"We had a pre-called move, obviously, and I had my role in it. The option was back inside and there was a gap and obviously Jonny Sexton saw that, and put me away. Once I got my hands on the ball, I don't really know, I just turned it on and I wanted to score. I was glad I did.

"It was my peripheral vision which helped me to beat those guys, knowing who was outside me, probably again I should have passed a couple of times. I get that a lot. But I was glad to score.

"Last week gave me a lot of confidence but at the same time, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself as well. I didn't want people to think it was just a fluke against Fiji.

"I really wanted to do the same and I was just glad the way things went. I wouldn't say I was central.

"There's constant plays that we do and I have to know my role in them. I leave it up to Jonny and the rest of the guys to execute them. I do my bit and see how it goes."

Such unassuming modesty seemed insufficient to match the general gaiety of the occasion. But then, Ireland haven't enjoyed many days likes this of late.

It is encouraging to think these dark November days may have unfurled a brighter future for the international team that, until now, not many rugby supporters thought possible.

Irish Independent

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