Thursday 22 March 2018

Hope and history don't always rhyme at Croker

John O'Brien

IT was a wise old head who once said that no one in life could write their autobiography in advance. The course of life was far too unpredictable. And so it has been for Irish rugby. This team has arrived at a place that no one in their right mind could have foreseen a decade ago. Five years ago, maybe, you could detect signs that hinted at a certain direction. Nothing more clear-cut than that.

Before then games between these countries had a certain old-world charm about them. Feisty encounters that, more often than not, took place on the periphery of the championship with a wooden spoon for the losers. It would have seemed like that when Scotland visited here in February, 2000. Ireland were off the back of an unmerciful hammering in Twickenham. Lens was a bitter four-month-old memory. Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes, Shane Horgan and Peter Stringer were taking their first baby steps in international rugby. From there to here as the saying goes.

And so Ireland came gunning for their fifth Triple Crown of the decade. Ho hum, perhaps. But how would that prospect have looked on that cold February afternoon 10 years ago? Or the move to Croke Park 2007? The Irish Army belting out the queen's anthem in front of 80,000 respectful spectators. The GAA as gracious hosts. The ghosts of '48 finally laid to rest in 2009. How comfortable we seem in our modern, pumaflex stretch jerseys.

Thus, the first of yesterday's tasks was to frame a context for the game. Was a Triple Crown worth cherishing or, as some said, little more than a worthless bauble? In dismissing it as a trinket, were we in mortal danger of developing fancy notions about ourselves? Eddie O'Sullivan advised us not to take it for granted, but a coach who hadn't achieved anything more was hardly likely to take a different view.

Fifteen minutes into the game these questions still bubbled with resonance. Then a new imperative took over. It has always been a source of consolation for the Scots that, even if they couldn't harbour grand notions themselves, they could set about denying the notions of others with relish. Ireland fitted the bill for them quite nicely yesterday. They spoiled and harried like the best Scotland teams of old. Every time Ireland seemed like they might find their rhythm, the Scots would gleefully hustle them out of it again.

Clearly, Ireland had taken the field with greater ambition than merely winning a game and a trophy of questionable merit. They had beaten England and Wales despite a deficit in possession in both games, carried over the line by the steadiness of their discipline and the stoutness of their defence. Yesterday was a day to break out, perhaps. Take the game to opponents who seemed weaker in almost every sector. If they could win with a bit of style, then all the better.

Two minutes in, those notions already looked frail. Keith Earls had spilled a pass from Tommy Bowe on the left wing. Brian O'Driscoll had dropped one on the far side. Rory Best knocked on inside his own 22 after Jonathan Sexton had a clearance partially blocked down. It didn't amount to a catalogue of errors but was still a worrying start. With the wind swirling and the Scots in their faces, it wasn't the greatest of days for expansive rugby.

Worrying too, for a team that missed a single tackle in Twickenham, was to have missed three critical tackles inside the 15th minute. Ireland had three chances to stop Johnnie Beattie as the big Scottish No 8 bustled his way towards the Irish try-line and failed with all three. Geordan Murphy bounced off him. Paul O'Connell could only manage a glancing blow, while Gordon D'Arcy arrived too late. It was a good try to score, but a shocking one to give away.

Scotland, to their credit, radiated a sense of belief and adventure. If Ireland had wanted one team between themselves and a Triple Crown, it probably wouldn't have been one with no victories to their name and nothing left but to go out and have a go. It helps a side too when one of the best place kickers in the world is pitted against another dreadfully out of form. In a three-point game, kicking is always likely to be crucial.

The brutal truth is that, at present, Ireland are carrying a supremely gifted No 10 who is having trouble kicking points and that is a heavy burden at this level.

Sexton is not a bad kicker, though, and shouldn't despair. Dan Parks was man of the match yesterday and the Australian-born out-half was unloved and firmly out of favour before the tournament began. Now they say he is maturing into the type of player they always thought he could be. Parks is 31-years-old.

Sexton departed the game after 49 minutes having just kicked a penalty from 22 metres out. The substitution was timed, whether by fortune or design, so that the out-half left on a positive note. That gave Ronan O'Gara fully 30 minutes to drive Ireland into a winning position and, 14 minutes later, they looked to have secured it through Tommy Bowe's well-taken try and a sideline conversion that you could not have fancied Sexton to score.

In the end they were undone by the deadly accuracy of Parks. A side faced with a weapon like that knows it must be unfailingly disciplined in defence, but Ireland could not manage to repeat their Twickenham heroics. Twice inside the final 10 minutes they gave Parks opportunities inside their own half that, given his form, you didn't expect him to miss. The Irish crowd tried hard to disrupt his concentration with a sustained chorus of jeering that was mean-spirited and unbecoming.

Parks held his nerve and Scotland's reputation as the nonpareil of party poopers was maintained. Perhaps, as Munster discovered during their swansong evening at the old Thomond Park, there is something about a leave-taking that leaves you exposed and vulnerable. Ireland experienced the bitter taste of a mugging yesterday. It was no way to depart a ground where they had begun to feel at home.

Sunday Independent

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