Tuesday 20 March 2018

Eddie O'Sullivan: Triple Crown triumph should never be taken for granted

Eddie O'Sullivan

There's a bit of a Celtic Tiger feel to Ireland's pursuit of a fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons today. Just the faintest sense of good times washing away a little perspective in people. It's quite extraordinary to think that, prior to 2004, Ireland had won only six Triple Crowns in 121 years. Yet, now we take it almost as a birth right.

Actually, the memories of how we celebrated the triumphs of 1982 and '85 -- under Tom Kiernan and Mick Doyle respectively -- seem almost quaint now, because the Triple Crown has become de rigeur in this neck of the woods. We have forgotten who we were.

My own experience as Irish coach pretty much straddled the change in our relationship with the Crown. Back in '04, the celebrations were quite boisterous as we were bridging a 19-year gap to Doyler's 'Give it a Lash' generation.

Two years later, it was probably more about the mechanics of victory than any real sense of history. Shane Horgan's last-gasp try in the corner at Twickenham rounded off a remarkable week for the Irish in England, our tally of winners at the Cheltenham Festival having soared into double figures over the previous four days.

This was also the first time there was an actual trophy presentation, so the sense of pomp was real.

Twelve months later, however, it was as if the Triple Crown was becoming a busted currency. We had lost our first game at Croke Park to that late Vincent Clerc try, thereby shattering our Grand Slam ambitions and by the time we played our penultimate game of the championship against Scotland at Murrayfield, the vaguest sense of anti-climax had kicked in.


It proved an incredibly tough game, Ronan O'Gara kicking a late penalty to secure victory by a single point. And, in some quarters, that Triple Crown was treated like a poor consolation prize in place of the Slam we were supposed to win. Even the fact that Brian O'Driscoll held the trophy aloft with just one hand was interpreted as dressing-room indifference to the business of Ireland winning Crowns.

In fact, Brian had almost dislocated his shoulder just minutes before the final whistle and was, quite literally, unable to raise his arm above his head afterwards. The supposed ambivalence was illusory.

Yet, in certain quarters, that Triple Crown was met with virtual scorn. It was a strange time. Sure, we were gutted not to have completed the Grand Slam, but we understood too that beating England, Wales and Scotland in the one season was not something to be scoffed at in a country with our relatively meagre playing numbers.

Put it this way: Ireland, today, go in search of something that we have achieved only 10 times in 127 years. Don't doubt for a second that the English, Welsh and Scots would happily play the final game of the championship with a Triple Crown on the line.

Despite what I detect as a growing sense of presumption about today's game, I certainly don't see it as a foregone conclusion. Anyone who thinks it is must be working off a suspect memory. Don't they remember Murrayfield last year? A dog fight Ireland survived only courtesy of a game-saving tackle by O'Driscoll?

Scotland may be having a poor season, with just a draw against England to show for their efforts thus far. But it is worth pointing out that Dan Parks hit the post twice last Saturday. I don't doubt Andy Robinson will see that game as an opportunity missed, just as he must recall that bizarre late implosion against the Welsh in Cardiff.

Come to think of it, Scotland's defeat in Rome was another game they would feel confident of reversing if they could turn back the clock. In fact, their only comprehensive defeat has been to France, which pretty much puts them in the same boat as every other team in this season's Six Nations.

Frankly, had Scotland been a fraction luckier and, dare I say, more clinical, they could be running out in Croke Park today in precisely the same position as Ireland, with a Triple Crown on the line and an outside shot at a championship.

Robinson seems to have instilled a hard competitive edge to this Scottish team. They are physical and aggressive, have a good kicking game and an excellent place-kicker in Parks, who looks to have reinvented himself this season. We dismiss them at our peril.

So far this season, Ireland have been business-like. The reaction to a hugely disappointing day in Paris has been impressive, those victories over England and Wales marked by high levels of accuracy and efficiency. It takes a good side to win games comfortably off a deficit of possession and a key factor has, clearly, been defence.

The concession of just one try in the last 160 minutes of rugby speaks volumes for the work Les Kiss has put in since France. Yet, there are still a few alarm bells ringing. Ireland continue to concede an unacceptably high number of penalties and, with a kicker like Parks around, that could prove expensive.

It also strikes me that, despite the efficiency of our defence, we've been sailing a little close to the wind without receiving any yellow cards. Ordinarily, the concession of 16 penalties in a single game comes with the accompaniment of at least one yellow and Lee Byrne's time in the sin-bin last weekend showed us just how costly a yellow can be.

Oddly, we again kicked the ball to touch quite a lot against Wales, giving them 18 line-outs to our 10. True, we did superbly to steal six of their throws, but I'm not sure that's an option against the Scots. Their line-out doesn't look like one that will be so easily disrupted.

My view is that high line-out and penalty counts against us will merely give Scotland an abundance of quality possession, field position and possibly points.

Not good news for our Triple Crown ambitions. Bear in mind too that the Scots are surely due the rub of the green at some point.

On another note, my sympathy lies with the players over the IRB's decision to introduce a new interpretation to the tackle law mid-season. Everybody accepts that, as the governing body, it is their job to endlessly seek improvement in rugby as a spectacle. But having seen the controversial ELVs backfire, including the ones that were retained into law, the latest tinkering is a concern.

It's not the first time that changes to the interpretation of the laws have been introduced, but it is the first time I can remember it happening mid-season, not to mention mid-tournament.

This may go some way to explaining Ireland's sudden drop off in discipline, but with another southern hemisphere referee today, the situation will not change so Ireland need to adapt. And they need to do it quickly.

I expect them to win a tough contest today and secure that fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons. And I trust they will get the credit they deserve, because we should cherish the good times while we have them.

Remember what happened the Celtic Tiger.

Irish Independent

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