Friday 23 August 2019

From Croke Park tears to Cardiff cheers: 20 of the best moments as the Six Nations reaches its 20th edition


Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal in 2009 caused your correspondent to abandon any pretence to either professionalism or neutrality. Photo: SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

1. Snowy Slam

Let’s start at the end, shall we? A snowy Slam in 2018 beyond comprehension to those of a certain generation weaned on the bad old days of Irish amateurism and the even worse days of amateur Irish professionalism.

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Reared on only occasional glimpses of colour in the ’80s, and an almost slavish commitment to failure in the ’90s, our apprehension was understandable. Until we instead shifted the focus away from our memories and focused on what players like Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan might be thinking.

Their imperturbability offered renewed confidence – immediately lodged with Paddy Power – and, ultimately, the team performance later that day was perhaps the most complete, given the high stakes, of the Joe Schmidt era.

2. Con lights up London gloom

Aside from occasional muggings in the ’90s, Ireland’s trips to Twickenham were always fraught with dread. Ireland’s first two London games of the Six Nations (2000 and 2002) resulted in a cumulative 95-29 pair of defeats as England’s world champions-in-waiting flexed their muscles.

The only bright spot was this relatively greenhorn writer listening raptly to Tom Keogh delivering the wonderful musings of his colleague Con Houlihan down a telephone line – the legendary Con didn’t like to dictate his own copy – while the massed ranks of startled English hacks watched on, at once aghast and amazed.

3. Changing of the guard

Ronan O’Gara had been virtually an ever-present in the Six Nations since emerging from his duel with David Humphreys but by the end of the noughties a new arrival challenged his supremacy. Jonathan Sexton had already announced himself in Leinster blue and, only a few months since he had secured the Grand Slam, Declan Kidney decided it was time to slowly signal the end of a glittering Irish career for the clash with England in 2010.

This was Jonathan Sexton’s first start for Ireland; he would end the decade as his rival had done, driving Ireland forward to their second Grand Slam of the millennium.

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The wing-men stole the day, with Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls providing tries but Sexton’s first penalty in the championship sparked the beginning of his love affair with the Six Nations, and hasten the end of O’Gara’s romantic engagement with the Irish public as a leading man.

4. The Slam Drop

There may have been tenser moments – Paris last year, for one – but the 2009 Grand Slam triumph in Cardiff superseded all for me because in the instant that it had seemed success had been secured, there then came a moment when all suddenly seemed lost. Few sporting moments cause one to abandon any pretence to either professionalism or neutrality and this was one. First, Ronan O’Gara’s drop-goal threatened sweet release before Stephen Jones’ late penalty momentarily threatened familiar failure.

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5. The wrong ball

It’s not often you spy the opportunity for an assistant touch judge who is probably not even a household name in his household to become the main story, but this was it.

Mike Phillips scored a controversial try from a quick lineout in Cardiff in 2011 which should never have been allowed because an errant schoolboy, acting as a ball boy, had touched the ball before the set-piece.

In truth, Ireland had had enough of the right ball to have won the match a couple of times over.

6. Lo Cicero's tears

Ireland’s Six Nations relationship with Italy had been as uncomplicated as their late ’90s duels had been so problematic. That changed on March 16, 2013 when an Ireland side ceding casualties at an alarming rate succumbed to the Italians at the Stadio Olimpico.

Ireland’s demise was the story but only the stoniest of hearts could not have been unmoved by the waterfall of tears that erupted from Azzurri prop Andrea lo Cicero after the final whistle.

7. Horgan reaches for glory

Ireland had begun to turn the tide against England in the mid-2000s and to announce themselves as trophy winners. Back then, a Triple Crown was still a rarity to be cherished.

This climax at Twickenham in 2006 was dramatic as Ireland trailed heading into the death throes. The chance seemed lost when Shane Horgan was hauled down short of the line, after O’Gara’s clever chip and O’Driscoll’s burst had spread-eagled the defence.

Peter Stringer’s almost audacious pass back to the wing seemed too good to be true; Horgan was surrounded by white bodies but somehow, he managed to stretch every inch of his giant frame to ground the ball.

8. O’Gara's late drop

What is it about Cardiff and drama? This contest in 2003 was typical theatre. Wales should have had two of their tries disallowed and, as Ireland led in injury-time, Stephen Jones bagged a drop-goal which put the hosts ahead.

The stadium was still erupting when O’Gara countered with one of his own just 14 seconds later. Still, Wales should have had a chance to win it after another Jones drop missed the target. They expected a penalty; it didn’t come.

9. BOD’s farewell

Paris 2014 and this was one where all the emotion was sucked into a room far beneath the Stade de France and long after the final whistle. The last time Brian O’Driscoll would wear the green of Ireland. A fittingly valedictory day.

“Whatever it is, an hour and 45 minutes after the game, I don’t want to take this jersey off yet. Because I know when I take it off, that will be the last time.”

10. Snow joke

A reminder that even though the Six Nations likes to luxuriate in its often over-blown status as the oldest and best championship in the world, it can at times mirror the organisational skills of a cack-handed school sports day.

All week we anticipated that the 2012 meeting in France would succumb to the frozen weather, but not the French. Even the band played on as the hapless organisers bowed to the inevitable and called a halt two minutes after the scheduled kick-off time.

A French official conducted a farcical press conference at which no questions were allowed.

11. Title agony

On a sun-dappled, try-drenched Paddy’s Day in Rome in 2007, it seemed as if a seven-try victory would deliver the title. But within hours, the dreams had become a nightmare, as a shell-shocked Irish squad witnessed France snatch the title on points difference by thrashing Scotland. The decisive 80th-minute try in Paris, scored by Elvis Vermeulen, was confirmed by Irish TMO Simon McDowell.

12. Croker choker

Ireland’s first match at Croke Park, against France in 2007, was supposed to be a momentous day; and perhaps, despite the searing pain inflicted in the final moments by Vincent Clerc, it would always remain so.

After an emotionally fraught debate, the introduction of rugby to GAA HQ was a symbolic moment not merely for this championship, and this sport, but for Irish society.

13. Gatland's redemption

After a horrendous defeat in Twickenham to open the 2000 Six Nations, Warren Gatland was on borrowed time given the humiliating World Cup defeat to Argentina a year earlier. Something needed to change to hint at a brighter future. Gatland unveiled it against Scotland with a remarkable eight changes to his side, five of them debutants.

All five – Shane Horgan, Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes, Simon Easterby and Peter Stringer – would become legends of Irish rugby, while the re-introduction of Mick Galwey, for the umpteenth time, ensured that some pride was restored to the Irish jersey. Eddie O’Sullivan would take Ireland to the next level, and his fingerprints were all over this 44-22 win.

Former Ireland coach Warren Gatland. Photo: Sportsfile

14. A star is born

Before 2000, Ireland had not won in France for 28 years. These were forbidden fields.

All changed utterly on this March afternoon as Brian O’Driscoll unveiled himself to the world as the symbol of change for Irish rugby, a stunning hat-trick signalling a new millennium of hope that professionalism could finally re-generate the international side from years of decline.

15. Rousing anthems

In a country with an inherited, often irrational hatred of all things English, the momentous nature of this day in Croke Park in 2007 still resounds 12 years later.

The pregnant pause before the playing of the English anthem seemed like it encompassed hours and not the few extra seconds it had taken the President to resume her seat. The silence seemed deafening after the conclusion of God Save the Queen, and interminable too, until greeted with throaty acclamation before the Irish anthem, and the tears of John Hayes, filled every throat with lumpy poignancy. The game was now a foregone conclusion, sealed fittingly by a Gaelic football fetch.

16. Ireland carpeted

In 2003, England arrived in Ireland with both teams chasing a Grand Slam. England hammered their superiority home on the field – they had already indicated their supremacy before a ball had been kicked.

England captain Martin Johnson did what many of us have felt like doing when facing the inordinate amount of pre-match nonsense.

He stood his ground. And so Brian O’Driscoll was placed in the invidious position of compelling President Mary McAleese to get her shoes slightly muddied before England trod the Irish team into the dirt.

It was one of the finest moments of Johnson’s career and a reflection of just how far the Irish team of that era had to travel.

Sportswriters understood it; not many others shared their opinion. A usual occurrence.

17. Le drop

Nothing showcased Ireland’s Six Nations journey more than this game in Paris last year and this epic finish. A side that had done enough to win the game but had seemingly conspired to lose it appeared all too redolent of darker times, And yet Ireland won the game in an end-game for the ages, culminating in that magnificent drop-goal from Jonathan Sexton.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates after kicking the match winning drop goal during the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between France and Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

18. Eddie plays catch-up

During the Eddie O’Sullivan era, relationships with the press were usually on a knife-edge. France had led Ireland 43-3 at half-time of the 2006 game in Paris before conspiring to let Ireland escape with a 43-31 loss which prompted one colleague to inquire if “catch-up” rugby had played its part. Eddie harangued the questioner at length, claiming he had never heard of a term he had used just months before after Wales had beaten Ireland in their Grand Slam win.

19. Murrayfield party

It was a Super Saturday for the Six Nations in 2015 as three teams battled for the title on the final day, all knowing they had to pile on the points to win the tin.

Ireland did their part with a spanking 40-10 victory in Edinburgh featuring the most dazzling attacking rugby of the Joe Schmidt era. We then had to watch England try – and narrowly fail – to chase down the points total. Only then could the trophy presentation take place in a largely empty stadium. The longest day. But one of the sweetest.

20. Dempsey's glory

Eddie O’Sullivan’s Irish team produced some of the most sublime moments of the early years of this millennium and none were more profound than the 2004 success in Twickenham, which cast aside bleak memories of previous visits to that theatre of gloom. The multi-phase score that saw Girvan Dempsey score in the left corner was a thing of beauty as Ireland completed a first win in England for 10 years – against the fading world champions.

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