Sunday 20 October 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Drop of pure magic comes just in time'

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates after kicking the match winning drop goal against France. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland celebrates after kicking the match winning drop goal against France. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We don't pretend to present this job as real work, which is not to say it doesn't have its moments of acute stress. Mostly these revolve around trying to file, on time, a match report that has some elements in common with what actually happened. This is harder than you think.

It is especially challenging when time constraints sometimes mean there is no connection between the opening paragraph and the rest of the piece. This is because the game was decided only in its last throes. So in this business - when on a tight deadline - you long only for a landslide win where the earth starts moving long before the final whistle. Conversely, the thrilling finish is a nightmare.

On a balmy night in Bordeaux in autumn 2007 we were presented with one of these horrible vistas. Ireland were playing Georgia in the second pool game of the World Cup. Stade Chaban-Delmas was packed to the rafters, mostly with men and women in green. They were pouring beer down their necks like it was going out of fashion, and having about them the unmistakeable swagger that attended the Celtic Tiger. In the words of that great philosopher Conor McGregor, they weren't there to take part, they were there to take over.

By the end their cough had been softened. In the 78th minute of a woeful game, with Ireland hanging on to a 14-10 lead, referee Wayne Barnes went upstairs on a Georgia try claim having mauled their way over the Ireland line. For many, time stood still. Sadly not for us, however. Our gig that night had required filing 50 per cent of the report at half-time because of the tight deadline. The rest had to be sent on the final whistle. Clearly the two chunks might read like stories of different games.

On the night, Ireland's escape was purely temporary. And of course we knew soon enough we'd find ourselves between the same rock and another hard place. So it confirmed our position of emotional detachment: never mind who wins, just let it be clear from a long way off.

Very rarely have we had to question that policy. Another night in another French ground would blow it out of the water.

In Stade de France last February, Ireland got their Six Nations campaign up and running with one of those performances where they never look like losing until suddenly they look like losing. A statistical triumph by all accepted metrics, they were all over their hosts until a try from Teddy Thomas gave France the lead for the first time. There were just over five minutes left. Thanks, Ted. In horrible conditions, the challenge for Ireland of retaining the ball long enough to get into scoring territory was massive.

Naturally enough, on another 'tight as a crab's arse at 40 fathoms' deadline we were furiously rewriting the narrative from one where Joe Schmidt's side had led from start to finish into one where they had made all the running only to fall flat on their faces in the home straight. And then Johnny Sexton started pulling and dragging the game through phase after phase in search of his golden shot. That's when we stopped writing.

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Moreover we actually broke the house rule about wishing only for the expedient thing - a clear-cut finish, which in this case would have been France keeping Ireland at arm's length until the final whistle - and began to believe that indeed Sexton's light at the end of the tunnel might not be an oncoming train. Through 41 phases you can imagine the number of times he nearly lost his footing and fell into the abyss.

By the time he was in the high 30s, however, he had taken on the sureness of a mountain goat. He had bullied his team-mates to a point where the pain of their fatigue was welcome if it meant the show was still on the road, and he wasn't shouting at them. Referees will tell you that Sexton is an almighty pain in the butt on matchdays, but you can't for a moment doubt his self-belief. So when he finally decided the planetary alignment was as good as he could get it, and pulled the trigger, we too believed totally that the ball would go where it was supposed to go.

And when it had gone there we looked back at the screen and set about cleaning up the mess. Never have we been more content trying to put structure on chaos. Never have we been so grateful to be asked to do it.

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