Saturday 18 November 2017

Script for final act torn up

Sad end to Croker sojourn, writes Eamonn Sweeney

It was goodbye to the Hill. And to the Hogan and the Cusack and Jones Road in general for that matter.

We came expecting a kind of commanding performance which would remind us of the highlights of Irish rugby's tenure at the great old stadium, equivalents of Shane Horgan's sublime high fetch in the corner in 2007, of Jamie Heaslip's extraordinary try last year, of Brian O'Driscoll's drop-goal and unstoppable burrow a few weeks later. It would be only fair and fitting.

Because this sojourn has been a glorious chapter in the history of Irish sport, reflecting credit on all involved. Foreign television crews and fans came and bent over backwards to give Croke Park all the credit it deserved and home supporters got the chance to watch international rugby in unprecedented numbers, right at the very time when there was an 80,000 plus audience for Ireland in the Six Nations.

So there was obviously only going to be one possible finale, a commanding performance from the home team and a gallant, but thoroughly unavailing, effort from the outgunned visitors as we picked up the Triple Crown and they thanked their stars that no one has yet come up with the idea of providing an actual trophy for that other great mythical achievement, the Wooden Spoon.

So much for scripts. There was a time when Scotland were the great spoilsports of the championship, overturning hubris on the part of their old enemy below the border on memorable occasions. Yet it seemed unlikely that they would be so unmannerly as to repeat the feat on this sentimental occasion.

We underestimated them, and, once again, learned that hubris is not the name of a Lithuanian nightclub, it's something more dangerous than that. The lessons of Paris had not been fully absorbed and as Ireland opened in Barbarians mode it seemed that we were once more in that wishful territory of this famous expansive game which must be employed to ready us for the southern hemisphere challenge in the World Cup.

Scotland, on the other hand, remembered that with a bit more luck they could have been playing for the Triple Crown themselves. And they discommoded Ireland to the extent that a line-out which had lost just three of our own throws in the entire championship had lost the same number by half-time. The defence which had missed a solitary tackle at Twickenham had botched seven by half-time.

When Dan Parks pushed the outsiders 17-7 clear seven minutes into the second half the rugby nation had the collective feeling you get when a nubile woman in a slasher movie declares that she's just going outside to check what that mysterious noise in the dark is.

Yet the introduction of Ronan O'Gara turned the tide and made it obvious that the loss of collective confidence had stemmed at least in part from the uncertainty which affected Johnny Sexton at out-half. Such has been the Leinster man's meteoric progress that it's easy to forget this time last year he wasn't even first-choice out-half for his province. His time will come, but games are won in the present not the future.

Those closing minutes were agonising. Rob Kearney's indecision which offered Parks the opportunity to kick a winning penalty with a minute left was typical of the season. Kearney went into the championship looking like the best full-back in the world after his exploits in South Africa, as the season wore on it became clear that he still had a great deal to learn. So it is with the team. We simply aren't as good as we thought we were. Perhaps 2009 was a great last hurrah for a magnificent generation rather than a pointer to a glorious future.

Make no mistake, this defeat was an enormous step backward. Scotland reminded us that we need to keep our eyes focussed on challenges a little closer to home. Croke Park is no stranger to the sight of an over-confident home team realising that swagger counts for nothing against more focussed opposition, ask the likes of Laois and Westmeath footballers.

Perhaps it was a fitting farewell after all.

Sunday Independent

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