Sunday 17 December 2017

Impending tango may be special

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Paris has long been a place of magic for Irish fans but, says Billy Keane, this year could be an epic encounter

"Are you going to Paris?" "I am," said the rugby fan. "And who are you going with, the lads, is it?"

"The wife," he replied. I was taken aback by this frank admission.

The rugby man was so old school he must have spent Senior Infants under a hedge.

His wife, to my near certain knowledge, had never attended a game in her life.

And I thought to myself what a waste of a ticket. Yes there are men too who are invited to games, as a reward for being customers or such, who wouldn't know a rugby ball from a size-five duck egg.

My initial reaction may have been unfair to 'the wife' but this year's itinerary in Paris will differ from other trips.

The Lads' bypass the best restaurants in the world in favour of a reservation in Chez McDonalds 'for soakage'. Herself prefers table cloths, bouillabaisse and Château Neuf de Pape.

There would be no visits to topless bars, which by the way have roofs, or perfume reparations from the Duty Free, which isn't free at all. Herself will no doubt place shopping at the top of her 'to do' list.

The marriage hadn't been going well, the rugby man told me. The 'His and Hers' towels in the en suite were a reflection of a wider rift. It was a 'His and Hers' marriage. He went his way and she went hers.

"I told her she was welcome to come along," said the rugby man, "but I wasn't going into any shops." You can take it the rugby man didn't marry into the Pankhursts.

Still I suppose he was making an effort.

I had forgotten the French game is being played near Valentine's Day and Paris is the city of love.

I fell in love with being in love in Paris when I was 19. The object of my desires was Flora from Coventry and she was an art student.

Flora was to art what Phoebe in 'Friends' was to song writing. Still, Flora was beautiful. They might well have called a margarine after her.

I used to leave bits of love poems in places where she was bound to find them. My poems were truly awful. Flora found another.

I can't say if Flora's new boyfriend was named Fauna but her rejection finished me with the poetry even though unrequited love was the makings of Yeats.

There are more important reasons for visiting Paris than romance.

For the first time in 61 years we are defending Grand Slam Champions.

Maybe as much as 80pc of our population have never been alive in such heady times.


The numbers of Irish people who have been to Paris or London is on a similar mark. Travel holds no fears and we will have a large support in both cities.

Two country lads from Tipp and Mullingar saw to that. Ryan and O'Leary ensured the plain people got to see Europe although I wish Ryanair would set a ceiling on the cost of match travel.

We play France and England away in two towns that have shaped the map of the world.

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster are opened up to tours every September and the majesty of the upper and lower houses pomps even those in the best of circumstances.

We were guided from The Lords to The Commons past old portraits of potentates, statues of kings, queens and Prime Ministers all under high oak beams or ornate ceilings. And then on through gilded state rooms bathed in the heraldic wash of blue, red and green stained glass. And as we took it all in it dawned on me that a small farmer's son from West Cork took all this on and won.

Michael Collins had no quarrel with the French. Like London, the state buildings are magnificent.

The architecture serves two purposes. One is ascetic and the other is to impress on the onlookers that big builders are not to be messed with.

We are in no way dismissing Wales, Scotland and Italy.

Indeed, the Italians whom we meet in the first game have a certain expertise in empire building but we have these three teams at home.

If the game was played in a toilet cubicle, Italy would maul us to bits. I am sure if we run them around the pitch our superior pace, mobility and general skills will get us off to a good start.


And we must be wary of the Welsh who so nearly denied us the Grand Slam in Cardiff last March.

I was at the back of the Taff goal as the little general Stringer expertly directed his pack left and right and right again into the optimum position to set up O'Gara's famous drop-kick.

I often think there's a fortune to be made by the car manufacturer who copies the Batman car concept of the passenger ejector seat.

Some passengers turn kilometres into miles.

We nearly ejected out of our seats and onto the pitch from 40 rows back when Ronan kicked over that drop and he struck it so true, we thought his cast would land on the other side of The Taff.

But it was Stringer who took the risk out of the play with his adroit, nerveless mouse manoeuvring of the forwards. Close, closer but not too close.

Then the quick, accurate pass -- his wrists were still following through when O'Gara received the ball.

Danno from Dingle RFC summed it up best.

"That Stringer," he said "would herd a flock of sheep down the Conor Pass without a dog."

Wales aren't the team they were in their own Grand Slam year and we should get by in Croke Park in what might be the most open and free-flowing game of the championship.

Scotland are improving. They lack pace in the backline and we have them there.

When the powers-that-be-stupid-at-times did away with foot rucking, the Scots suffered more than anyone in that they lacked the physical grapplers who could tear a wing off a 747.

The traditional Scots ruck was to drive over opposition with their feet but some teams were malicious and the foot ruck was banned.

The poor Scots who turned rotavating negative forwards playing possum into an art form were collateral casualties.

But with due respect, it is the away days we have to fear most.

Peter Clohessy kicked the French on their own home turf and subsequently got himself suspended for two years. He was only doing what the French had been doing to us for years.

Back then it was considered unmanly to crib when you were disfigured by savages.

You waited until the next year at home and did whoever did you. Irish packs didn't really stand up to the French in Paris.

That has changed now. And the game has been cleaned up. Two French players have been given long bans for eye gouging.

France will have to win by playing the better rugby. We have slightly better than a 50-50 chance and if we beat the French, the Slam will be there for the taking.

Twickenham has been good to us in recent years.

We touched off England in a thriller just after they had won the World Cup and, if the rules of conkers were applied, that would have made us champions.

Then there was the Shane Horgan try. Horgan stretched his chewing gum arms until the ball crossed the line after a preposterous last-play break-out by our backs.

Yes, we can beat England again. History shows though that beating England in England isn't that easy. Our victory margins have been by single scores.

We have better players and, by the end of February, the English Premiership stars will begin to show the effects of a tough season.

If we can get our two away wins it could set us up for that final game against the Scots in Croke Park in what could be the last international rugby match to be played in the stadium.

I was at the stadium formerly known as Lansdowne Road back in 1982 when we had to beat the Scots to win the Triple Crown.

The country was in an even bigger mess than it is now.

Ollie Campbell kicked 21 points and we won the crown for the first time in years. The win lifted us as a nation just when were wondering if we were any use at all, at anything.

I was walking home that night with the old ghosts on Raglan Road when two cars collided.

The drivers shook hands and gave thanks no one was injured.

No one really cared who was at fault. Bangers were the norm and the bonhomie from the game split liability at 50-50. There was a chorus of 'Molly Malone' on the bonnet of a Ford Escort in the days before 'The Fields of Athenry' became our anthem.

And it was so good to be alive-alive oh.

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