Tuesday 10 December 2019

Billy Keane: Mad hatters enjoy party in wonderland

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

We will dedicate this win to the emigrant Irish. Our Tanaiste says they only move abroad to enjoy themselves. She makes Sarah Palin to insignificance. And how the diaspora celebrated. And the many I met couldn't wait to strut into work on Monday morning.

It was their day. A small country hanging off the edge of the known world defeated the leftovers of an empire. We were, in a word, awesome. And in a few more words, brilliant, resolute, brave, skilful, clinical and profoundly courageous.

Our boys only got their hands on the ball about 30pc of the time. England owned territory and possession but it's the story of the lad who spends all night chatting up the girl only to find another brings her home.

Martin Johnson's England are like drinking at home. No craic, same company, no escape from the monotony of conformity and wishing they had an upstairs in their bungalow. And that was it about England.

Their game-plan was sterile and upstairs in their heads was ruled by a coach who failed to grasp the fact that the team who scores the most tries usually wins. The carpet was pulled out from under him. Lino Johnson, it was good enough for you.

And we scored three beauties. Jonathan Sexton's off-the-side-of-the-boot grubber for the first was an ode to Barry McGann. His pass for the second was a Mike Gibson cover.

Declan Kidney is such a clever man. Sexton tackled himself into exhaustion and then on comes Ronan O'Gara with 10 minutes to go. O'Gara was the cleanest man on the muddy pitch. You'd need wellingtons to keep your shoes clean in Twickenham but he was a white knight.

O'Gara kicked for the corner and it was inch perfect. We cannot ever speak of this man with anything less than reverence. Sexton and O'Gara is jam with jam on it.

Ah but that last try, with the sand flowing like a river in flood from the egg-timer, lifted a nation. There's hope for us now. Tommy Bowe, we sang the Black Velvet Band three times for you in The Turk's Head. The pub was lifting. It was as good as it gets. And we kissed men and women.

We were right behind the goal when Tommy went over. It was Paul O'Connell's Micko catch that made it. If he lepped any higher he would have had to inform air traffic control. The throw-in was too high but he got to it barely leaving a fingerprint on the ball. Tomas O'Leary was on to the tap down and he drove. Then there was the lovely offload to Bowe.

The dead-ball zone was Kavanagh country. Bowe even had time to wave before he touched down.


We were billeted in the English camp. Thank you for the ticket, Brian Bourke. They are without a doubt the most gracious of foes. It's strange that you have the worst of the Black and Tans' great-grandchildren living in the same country as the thoroughly decent rugby supporters.

The hip flasks were passed around like snuff at a wake. I was so wired before the game I told the man in front of me to shut up during our on-the-road anthem.

"It's only 'Ireland's Call'," said the Corkman who sat behind me.

And we met a lovely young lad and his dad on the way in. The child was 7, the optimum age for a human being, and his Christmas-morning eyes lit up when he had his first sight of the pitch. I had his name written down on the programme but it got lost in the mayhem that was O'Neill's in Convent Garden, as one of our boys called it.

Usually London's enormity wipes out the track of big matches but, on Saturday night, the Irish were everywhere. I would guess that there were 50,000 without tickets. Mostly young girls and boys. I didn't even see one out of order.

Honestly. The rickshaw man told us as he pedalled us back to the aptly named Mad Hatter Hotel that he had his busiest night of the year. And not one Irish person gave him the slightest bit of bother.

We kept all our botheration for the English team.

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