Sunday 25 February 2018

Our boys have made us a nation once again

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is tackled by Mathieu Bastareaud, France
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is tackled by Mathieu Bastareaud, France
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

When we are old and immediate thoughts fade within seconds of the happening, old folks will go a roaming to the night of the full moon in Paris. The nurse will tell her colleagues of how the old boy was crying and smiling at the same time. "He must be thinking back to happy times in the days of yore," she might say.

So it is then we will make notes now, so as to never forget the night brave Ireland won the Six Nations and lifted not just a cup, but the spirits of a nation.

There were more St Patrick's in the Stade de France than there are Elvises in Memphis. Huge police horses deposited elephantine quantities of horse dung; the French horses must be very well fed. The French bands played a frenetic build-up beat. The portents for an epic were there as plain as day. I saw a man eating chips with chop sticks and we overheard a French woman in black lace tights tell her husband she was getting a taxi back home because he wasn't paying her enough attention.

Our spirits rose when band after band of Irish sang their way in to the stadium. Happier couples in green jerseys held hands on second honeymoons to the most romantic city of all. Little boys from the troubled suburb of St Denis wore giant St Patrick hats given out by Guinness.

The French were Irish for a day. When Brian O'Driscoll's name was called, they cheered louder than for any of their own. He's owned by the whole world now. What will we do without him? Thank you, Brian. Thank you so much for all you have done for Ireland and the game of rugby.

Sixty thousand voices sang the French battle hymn in a thunderous fanfare. "Marchons, marchons!" boomed the chorus crescendo of 'La Marseillaise'. Napoleon stirred in his tomb. We wondered how can we hold out against the power of a mighty nation in full flow in their home place? But we did. We did. For only the second time in 42 years.

Andrew Trimble got my vote for man of the match. His Fosbury Flops and buck-lepping won ball after ball. His meandering run set up a try for his close pal Jonathan Sexton.


Jonathan's nana and his mother closed their hairdressing and clothes shops an hour early and said their prayers as they always do. Their boy was stretchered off unconscious after an elbow from the siege engine Mathieu Bastareaud. He turned Jonathan over on his side and stopped play even though France were on the attack. He waited with the fallen Irishman until he was taken off.

Even late on Saturday night, Jonathan had no memory of the blow that felled him. His head was throbbing and he was very hard on himself for missing two easy enough kicks.

So, we told him a bed-time story.

It was about an Irishman who sang a second-half redemption song with a pressure penalty and a try to win the Six Nations. We told him the bit about the hero's superb try in the first half and of his brave defence on the Paris barricades.

Bastareaud didn't seek out Sexton; Sexton sought out Bastareaud. He knew only too well the tackles on the French giant would take a terrible toll on his body. He knew, too, that if he didn't take the giant down that Ireland would be beaten. Take another aspirin and sleep well young lad.

In the old people's home, years from now, the residents will ask a trick question at the Monday night quiz. When did Ireland beat England and France on the same day? Little Ireland, for all her faults and idiosyncrasies, showed we are who we are, a proud people who've never given up.

And the leader was a Limerick man. Never have we had a more ferocious or gentler captain. Paul O'Connell was lovely to those of our lads who made mistakes as he laid into the French. If there was a woman about to give birth in the back of a speeding taxi, or a spreading bush fire in the need of a quenching or a raging tempest to be stilled or if your bike was punctured in Athlunkard Street, you'd only call Superman if Paul's number was busy.

Ireland had so many heroes. We will tell their stories next week. Spare a thought, though, for Paddy Jackson, who was dropped from the squad and had to watch from the stands. Paddy is a fine young man and an excellent player. He played his part when he came on against Italy. But for Jackson's efforts that day, we would not have built up the points total needed to win the Six Nations.

In the end, Ireland held on, but only just. Our boys made Ireland a nation once again.

So it is then, we will never ever forget, the night of the full moon in Paris.

"I'd love to know what he's dreaming about," whispers the nurse. "I'd love to have been there," she sighs, "for whatever it was in the long ago that made him so happy."

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