Monday 24 June 2019

Vincent Hogan: Late call a spear to the heart of Irish resolve

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

No children reported eaten in the big freezer unit at the bottom of Lansdowne Road, but it was probably just stupid luck.

Some kind of loosening of the brain stem is seemingly required to pack down in international rugby today, and yesterday's biggest moments all ached with a sense of pummelling hormones supplanting simple common sense.

Lawrence Dallaglio observed at a Six Nations preview night last week that "you need at least two men in your pack who look like they have eaten their own children." And it's certainly become part of the warped beauty of the game, that sense of caged primates set loose in the mirage of a controlled environment.

Rugby forwards come built like dump trucks and, too often, we demand that they operate with the same intelligence. We expect them to be monstrous, then judge them when it's all over as if they've just come to us from a church social.

Technically, Stephen Ferris' untidy 79th-minute tackle on Ian Evans cost Ireland a precious victory. It looked a needlessly careless act. Actually, in the context of this rivalry, it seemed stupid on a molecular level.

Sam Warburton's World Cup dismissal by an Irish referee cast a cold, operating theatre light on the bandit practice of spear-tackling. And, face it, we'd already had our say on it during the Lions tour of New Zealand in '05. So when, with 15 minutes remaining, Bradley Davies stood no more than five yards from a touch judge and tossed Donnacha Ryan, head-first, to the deck, we were practically slapping our sides at the idiocy.

On the field too, Davies' team-mates weren't exactly pleased. "We had a few choice words for him," admitted Adam Jones. "Look you've got to deal with it, we've done it before haven't we?"

Would Davies maybe be buying their beers tonight? "No, we don't drink, do we?" he chuckled. "Nah, he's obviously disappointed. But, if we'd lost, he'd be 10 times worse."

A condition, presumably, Ferris could recognise this morning. Neither his nor Davies' misdemeanours were spear-tackles in the technical sense. Had they been, the cards flourished would have been of a different colour. But they both qualified as dangerous and, as such, drew entirely appropriate censure.


So the idea that Ireland had their pockets picked, that they were like a boxer whose opponent concealed a horseshoe in his glove, doesn't exactly defy gravity. They were beaten by a smarter, better team yesterday. Only the timing offered an illusion of larceny. Jamie Heaslip caught the day in microcosm. "Look, it really shouldn't have come to that anyway," he sighed long after night had fallen. "There's nothing we can do about it. The decision was made."

How easily can a man find himself sucked into making an illegal tackle?

"I don't know. Sometimes those calls go with you, sometimes they go against you. There's no point going over it really. He gave a penalty. It's done. Bottom line, you'll always find it tough to win a game where the other team scores three tries to your two."

For all the late drama, it had been a game frequented with long passages of indifference and, from the stands, periods of eerie quiet. Ireland weren't playing to any discernible script. It was top-of-the-head stuff. A team just hoping for a break like farmers hoping for some rain.

That's what made it scarcely believable that, with injury-time approaching, they had somehow carved out a winning position. Davies' sin-binning, undoubtedly, contributed. The moment he took his seat on the line, Ireland went direct and -- within three minutes -- the wonderful Rob Kearney sent Tommy Bowe over in the right corner.

With just over 10 minutes remaining, they were six points up and an extra forward to the good. It looked a done deal. What followed will furrow the brows of all those diagnosticians employed these days to help a professional rugby team understand itself. George North seemed to carry half the Irish team over on his shoulders for a 76th-minute try that Leigh Halfpenny just failed to convert from the west touchline.

Puffs of breath shooting from mouths like shots of steam, Ireland said what they needed to say beneath the posts. This was about cool heads now. At least, it should have been.

"We probably let Wales away with a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card there," groaned Gordon D'Arcy with a face of thunder. "They got a penalty on our 10-metre line, in front of the posts. On, what, 79 minutes? You know, it should never have come to that. They shouldn't have been getting out of their '22'. We should have been squeezing the life out of them up the other end of the field." A question of fatigue perhaps?

"Have to have a look at the video" he sighed. "I'm sure there's some reason for it."

It didn't help that, as the referee reached into his pocket, a smiling Evans reached across and patted Ferris like a father with a child who's just forsaken his pocket-money. To a crescendo of jeers, Halfpenny lined up the kill shot. Regret decanting a sour, malignant noise.

"The Grand Slam is gone, Triple Crown is gone. So what are we playing for now?" wondered D'Arcy aloud. "We're playing for pride in our jersey. We're playing for our supporters, who were absolutely phenomenal today. Walking out on that pitch, seeing all those green flags waving ... the atmosphere in the stadium made me proud to be Irish.


"So we're playing to try to restore a bit of pride in the crest. And we're playing for the Championship now. Maybe we'll come in under the radar, get a win in Paris. In four games' time, maybe we'll be the ones jumping up and down. But first things first, we've got to go to Paris. It's going to be very very tough. It's a very hostile place to play. But I think a great characteristic of this team is to come back stronger from adversity.

"You look at all the senior players -- whether with their country or province, when in a tight spot, they've always come back stronger and showed people what we're made of. One thing you'll never say about this team is that we're mentally weak."

Paris looms next and, historically, that's not an accommodating place for rehab. One win since 1972. Time, maybe, for a prayer group.

"We're all big boys," said Heaslip. "We've played big games, lost some, won some. You take it on the chin. Dust yourself down, get up, go training on Tuesday. This is done now. We can't turn back the hands of time. We haven't discovered the 'Back To The Future' car yet, so we just get on with it.

"It's never nice being in a changing-room when you've lost, especially a close game like that. Guys are pretty down. But I think everyone's big enough and bad enough. We just get on with it. If we keep worrying about this game, France will kick our ass."

Fergus McFadden accentuated the positive. England lost a game last year and still managed to win the Championship. "Why can't we do that?" he asked. Fergus then admitted that he's never been to the Stade de France, which pretty much diluted his message of defiance. We told him it's a place where children often get eaten.

Irish Independent

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