Sunday 17 November 2019

George Hook: Game needs men of vision to avoid return to banality

George Hook

After possibly the greatest afternoon in the history of rugby union, Ireland emerged as Six Nations champions for the second season in a row.

Saturday was a great day for the Irish coach, his team and the legions of followers, but the sport of rugby was a massive beneficiary, and those charged with the future of the game were given a vision of what this great game could be if allowed to flow.

The challenge is now to give the game back to the children, the amateurs and the public and take it away from the gladiators.

We watched the most efficient, most organised and most motivated team in the history of Irish rugby. It was also the luckiest and, across England and Wales, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth as fans saw the spoils slip from their fingers when all seemed certain.

It was compelling. Television viewers were better off than those in the stadia. Television brought all the theatre in to the living room, and never was mathematics so much fun as the destination of the title changed at least six times in the afternoon.

Ireland deviated little from the path of a narrow frontal attack, although, in the first quarter, Luke Fitzgerald saw more of the ball than the hapless Simon Zebo did in the previous four games.

22/03/2015
Jamie Heaslip & Rob Kearney with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip & Rob Kearney with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Aidan Shanagher 4 from Dundrum after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fan Charlie Hassett 3 months from Tipperary after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans Michael Reehill 4 from Dublin & Aaron Redfern 6 from Limerick after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip with Irish fans Michael Reehill 4 from Dublin & Aaron Redfern 6 from Limerick after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22/03/2015 Cian Healy & Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt signs autographs for supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; The Ireland team bus is cheered by supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell leads the team into the arrivals hall on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Irish fans with the 6 nations trophy after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Fans (L to r) Ruth Fitzgerald from Waterford & Ciara Pykett from Swords during the homecoming of 6 Nations Rugby champions Ireland at Dublin Airport. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Jamie Heaslip & Cian Healy with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland's Peter O'Mahony takes a selfie with supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Paul O' Connell with Irish fans after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland's Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien sign autographs for supporters on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22/03/2015 Sean O Brien with Irish fan Jane O Rourke 7 from Castleknock after the Irish Rugby side arrived at Dublin Airport following their 6 Nations Championship win Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
22 March 2015; Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, and Rob Kearney on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Paul O'Connell and Jonathan Sexton share a joke on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien sign autographs. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Peter O'Mahony takes a selfie with supporters. Photo. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton signs autographs for supporters at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Ireland supporters await the team's arrival at Dublin Airport. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; The RBS Six Nations Championship trophy is passed around by Ireland supporters at the Ireland rugby squad homecoming. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jamie Heaslip poses for a photograph with students from Newbridge College, Co. Kildare, at the Ireland rugby squad homecoming.
22 March 2015; Eimear McEnroe, from Ballyjamesduff, Co. Cavan, takes a photo with Jonathan Sexton after the Ireland team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland captain Paul O'Connell is pictured with supporter Aidan Shanagher, Dundrum, Dublin, upon the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt poses with supporter Ciara McAteer upon the team's arrival at Dublin Airport after beating Scotland to win the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland's Jamie Heaslip is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport with Aaron Redfern and Michael Freehill, Dublin, after wining the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
22 March 2015; Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is pictured on the team's arrival at Dublin Airport with Patrick Greville, Clontarf, Dublin, after wining the RBS Six Nations Championship. Dublin Airport, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Despite the apparent switch in plan, the habits of a season were hard to break. Robbie Henshaw butchered an opportunity to put Fitzgerald away and then Tommy Bowe came back inside when there seemed a wide option. Paul O'Connell, who stormed over from three yards, rescued the two errors. It was a telling commentary on the narrow focus that Jared Payne, who had a fine game, scored by an inside switch.

The conservative strategy worked but it needed an assist from Wales and England. Predictably, Ireland had the lowest winning points score despite playing against the worst team. They held Scotland in a vice-like grip except when depending on an extraordinary saving tackle by Jamie Heaslip on Stuart Hogg.

His opponents did not match Joe Schmidt's efficiency. There was one addition to the coach's armoury that determined the result of the match and the competition. The arrival of Sean O'Brien demonstrated, if proof were needed, that a winning team cannot be fashioned without an openside.

Describing this extraordinary player as the 'Tullow Tank' gives scant recognition to his incredible athleticism, flair and courage. The problem for the coach is that, without his first-choice No 10 and No 7, his team is toothless.

The title was there for the taking for Wales, and a dropped pass at the death, with seven points beckoning, allowed Italy to score and the points difference went from a possible 67 to 53. Wales were magnificent but lacked Ireland's execution.

England succeeded three times in losing a championship winning position. How they allowed Les Blues to score five tries was a mystery.

The fixture coincidence, which left four of the six nations in with a chance of the championship on the final day, created a different focus for the competing countries. It placed a premium on points scored and not just victory. The result was that kicks at goal were turned down in the search for a converted try.

Mike Brown of England ran the ball from in front of the posts to create a try. However, he would never have attempted that in the previous four rounds.

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The rollercoaster of points scored and conceded placed an absolute premium on attacking. For the first time in a decade, we saw sides run from deep, consistently off-load at pace and risk everything in search of the Holy Grail of a converted try. It was thrilling.

The comparisons for Ireland are interesting. Wales and England scored more points as they had better full-backs and centre partnerships. Ireland risked least as they did not have the firepower to do anything else.

The problem may come earlier than we expect in the World Cup. France were seen as a walkover but showed a dangerous side in Twickenham. Even if we pass the first examination, a semi-final could mean a meeting with England, who have demonstrated serious attacking options.

As we luxuriate in reflecting on the thrills and spills of a final day of the Six Nations, there is a nagging feeling that, in a few short months, the game will return to the sterile arm wrestle it has been for almost a decade.

The game's administrators were given a peek in to the possibilities. Are there men of courage, conviction and imagination to make the changes to save the game from extinction?

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