Tuesday 24 April 2018

The perfect ending to a mad, mad day with the perfect twist

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So a day that erupted like flash-paper to a flame, left Ireland as champions and the supposedly stolid Six Nations throwing out shapes of glorious delinquency.

Disbelief swamped Edinburgh's West End when it was over. And it flowed from everyone. A great fountain of scores had erupted in three cities, all wired into one, staggered schedule and, out of it, poured drama that a screenwriter would have deemed fanciful.

From the soap opera of Rome right through to the last eccentric beat of an unhinged Twickenham classic, the push for the title ran in wild, discordant lines. But there was a fundamental narrative to it all too. It was the story of a team summoning something from within themselves they had been told did not exist.

The Welsh win set Ireland the challenge, not simply of beating Scotland, but of disregarding them.

To do this, they had to play tricks with their own minds. They had to separate themselves from the maths (having to win by at least 21 points), not to mention the history of a fixture that has routinely proved contrary.

For generations of Irishmen, Edinburgh was the most miserable piece of work on the Championship calendar. Even when the Scots were hopeless, they had the capacity to be riotously awkward.

But this was an execution. That was its beauty. The best team in the Championship won the silverware because they went after it with a ruthlessness that left Scottish coach, Vern Cotter, grumbling: "We got exposed badly today with a very good team in front of us."

Soundtrack

The words came out of him like something he might have preferred to secret away in a napkin.

They had momentarily turned off the TVs in the media marquee to hear him but, once Cotter's formal press conference was over, he found himself back talking over a soundtrack that was, at once, giddy and hopelessly fretful. Laughter and terror just playing a children's' game of chase.

Even without the TVs, the sounds were tell-tale. Outside, the Irish supporters had gathered by giant screens at two corners of Murrayfield now, voices sounding like a sea washing over shingle as they yearned good fortune for the same French team that, six months from now, will morph into a mortal enemy.

England needed to beat them by 26 to overtake Joe Schmidt's men and had launched themselves into that mission with such purpose they looked like they might, at any second, burst into flames. It was beyond extraordinary.

A tournament denigrated for its greyness had, through the TV schedulers' hands, turned into the colours of the rainbow. Forced to stockpile scores, Wales, Ireland and, finally, now England just became whirling clouds of high-kicking brio.

And the Irish players?

To begin with, they gathered at the mouth of the Murrayfield dressing-room tunnel, gaping up at the giant stadium screen that was beaming pictures from south west London. But there were simple courtesies to attend to now and, by half-time, they had decamped with their hosts to the post-match meal. It must have felt like trying to humour the bereaved whilst, behind them, your horse came up the Cheltenham hill.

All day, the script had left us gaping as if all three fields had been invaded by Martians.

From Sarto's last minute try for an Italian team in Rome that had, for the previous thirty nine, been gasping and wheezing like a doomed old boiler to, in Edinburgh, Jamie Heaslip's tackle on Stuart Hogg that forced the Scot into a barely perceptible spillage across the try-line, all was happening at break-neck speed.

The coaches' box in Murrayfield is right next to where the press sit, so we had a close-up view of Schmidt as he watched his team chase their target. He is such an innately likeable man, the steel within largely stays obscured. Yesterday morning, he still sounded bashful, describing himself on RTE radio with words like "paranoid" and "insecure".

The trick, presumably, is that he transmits neither.

Yet, the windows of the box almost frosted over on the half hour when Rory Best delayed a line-out throw so long that Heaslip was left hanging in the air, as if on invisible pulleys. The Scots were awarded a free-kick, from which they built the phases for Finn Russell's try.

Scotland were desperate to make the game gladiatorial, but, that concession apart, Ireland simply operated in another place, many miles further above sea-level. The back-row, especially, claimed ownership of the breakdown.

We were told officially that Ireland won four times their opponents' number of turnovers, but it seemed a charitable assessment of our hosts. Perhaps they had expected an Irish team to come just playing the percentages. They got one so primed for murder, Schmidt's men could have had cartridge belts around their waists.

The pack established the tone undeniably, that stony old warrior, Paul O'Connell, setting an example that the likes of Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony (does he not feel pain?) followed with absolute faith. But, behind the scrum, there was a palpable sense of mission too.

For Luke Fitzgerald, finding himself central to so much of it, had to feel like some kind of liberation. After four years of seemingly eternal rehab, he was finally running free and it seemed a perfect day to come in from the cold.

"I think what is good about today is we went out there and we put it on the line," he smiled in the afterglow. "I mean often times you tighten up in those scenarios and I think it's a real lesson for any team going forward who has a favourites' tag in Ireland to ...put it on the line, try it.

"If you fail trying, there's absolutely no shame in that. At least you gave it a shot. That was kind of in my mind going out onto the pitch, it might not have been in everyone else's, but that was really what I felt today. I was going to give it a shot. Because I've given up too much, it's been too long a journey back to not really really have a go."

That was the battlecry then, one that rang loudly out across the distant Lothians.

Ireland, the team supposedly enslaved to structure and order, played with globetrotting abandon, tossing the ball wide at every opportunity, running angles that had Scotland chasing like commuters hopelessly late for a train.

We had feared that Wales' stockpiling might reduce our game to something with all the tumult of a village tombola. Instead, the opposite occurred. We got one of the truly great Irish performances, a summoning of just about everything that ennobles this game.

All week, the Scots had invoked comparisons with the Six Nations of 2000, a season in which - after four consecutive defeats - they rescued their year by beating England 19-13 in a deluge. All of the Scottish points that day were scored by Duncan Hodge, their current assistant coach. By Saturday night, the memory seemed sepia-tinted.

For Ireland, though, the trouble was in not knowing what would be enough.

Schmidt made the first of two visits to the media marquee while England-France was just warming to its impression of a runaway train. The potty, irascible French led 15-7 at that point, having conceded a try inside 90 seconds. Someone asked Schmidt if it was "possible" in the time left for the English to fashion a 34 points turnaround.

"Oh I hope not," he groaned. "I really hope not. How much time's gone?" Thirty minutes, fifty to go. "Good!" (after a pause)

Then, another catch in his words, before elaborating "No it's difficult.... and I know it was difficult for the English last year. It's just a roller-coaster. Normally you have some degree of say in what direction it's going and how many times it's going to spin, but we're not even getting on the roller-coaster.

"We're just trying to stay away from it at the moment and hoping that when the ride finishes, we're still in front."

So he left us to the madness of images from a field in London where, it seemed, everybody had - maybe - smoked some funny cigarettes. By mid-way, England led by 12 of the 26 points they needed, but the game was being played with all the care and structure of litter swirling in a gale.

Its eccentricity was captured on the hour by French loosehead, Debaty, running in his side's fourth try only to be instantly taken off the field, presumably in search of oxygen. The two teams were just prize-fighters swinging windmills. Yet, when Jack Nowell ran in England's seventh try with five minutes still to run, England were a mere six points adrift of a Championship-winning score.

By the big Murrayfield screens, jollity had curdled into terror now.

And that terror would run all to the way to the wire until, with the game in added time, France were awarded a penalty inside their own '22. And that was the moment we came to realise there were more than just 400 miles between us and the team with our fate in its hands. There was a philosophical ocean.

Why on earth would France seek out a cardigan and slippers to fight someone else's war?

Metres from his own goal-line, Huget tapped and ran and maybe twelve thousand Irish voices rent the Scottish air with language that could sand furniture. No matter, exhaustion soon got the better of them and, eventually, the ball was kicked into the stand.

Down at the players' banquet, the delph was rattling now as if the diners all been transported onto a plane in bad turbulence.

"Yeah the heart was in the mouth," grinned Fitzgerald after. "And, when they (France) got that penalty at the end, there was a roar. But then they took a quick tap and we were saying 'Oh my god, I can't believe it. . .'"

For maybe half an hour, the man on the Murrayfield tannoy had been inviting supporters back inside. Now they returned in a great, green torrent. The day that should have been a shambles because of the game's deference to TV had, on the contrary, decanted a wondrous, soaring drama.

And so, in the gathering darkness, Schmidt and his men walked back out the tunnel and into a blizzard of flashbulbs. "It would have been very strange to come out to an empty stadium here and lift the trophy, but the crowd have just been amazing," said a grinning O'Connell. "We saw it on the way to the ground, you know they've dug into their pockets and travelled over to give us great support."

Outside, Edinburgh - home of the wooden spoon - was facing a loud and sleepless night.

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