Saturday 24 March 2018

We don't do moral victories any more, we do real ones

Back-to-back titles let Ireland dream of greater glory

Eamonn Sweeney

You can only call it The Longest Day. And it ended with a game that seemed like The Never Ending Story. And by the time both came to an end Ireland had won back-to-back championships for the first time since 1949, and only the second time ever.

That year, 1949, was when the Republic of Ireland left the Commonwealth. It was also the year when the British officer who accepted the surrender of Padraig Pearse a mere 33 years earlier presented Pearse's revolver to the Republic. Queen Elizabeth got the freedom of Belfast that year as well, only she wasn't Queen Elizabeth, she was still Princess Elizabeth. That's how long ago it was and how long it took us to put two titles back to back.

So this was a signal afternoon for not just Irish rugby but Irish sport as well. And not just Irish rugby but Six Nations rugby as well. Because after a season which was almost uniformly disappointing the last frantic day packed in more drama than every other weekend of the season put together. Twenty-seven tries were run in throughout the course of a tumultuous day. The other five weeks combined produced just 33. If the Six Nations should last a thousand years, people may well say: "This was their finest hour".

It was the day when the big three made it as hard as possible for their rivals. If you'd told someone yesterday morning that Wales would score 61 points and England rack up 55 against France, they'd have imagined that spelled goodbye to Ireland's chances. But it didn't and for the second year in a row we squeezed through by a nerve-wracking margin. It was 10 points last year, two points a game in other words, and six this year, barely over a single point per outing. Edge one title like that and maybe you're lucky, do it twice and you're doing an awful lot right.

As it had last year a lot hinged on a late dramatic moment in the right corner. Last year it was a French pass which travelled slightly forward and denied them a last-gasp winner. This year the game was won a long time before a Scottish move appeared to put Stuart Hogg in for a consolation try. But as Hogg appeared to touch down, Jamie Heaslip summoned up one last effort to fling himself at the full-back and get enough on the ball to force a fumble which the TMO spotted in due course.

It is the accumulation of those little things being done well which has come to characterise the reign of Joe Schmidt. Heaslip has been around a long time now and before Schmidt took the helm of the national team he looked to have suffered a decline. Back to form, he suffered a cruel foul from France's Pascal Pape which seemed destined to rule out him out of the remainder of the championship. But he worked and he made it back and he was there, wringing a last effort from his frame to make it hard for Hogg when the game was in what is sometimes called "rubbish time". That, folks, is the very definition of character. As was the overall performance of Sean O'Brien yesterday. O'Brien is perhaps the most naturally talented forward in the Irish pack, a man with the potential to be a giant of the game. But injury has meant he hasn't been as fit as he would have liked in this year's Six Nations.

Yet, in Murrayfield, when it all mattered most, he not only turned over an amount of ball but chipped in with two tries, including the crucial last one which set England a task they found too much despite an extraordinarily gallant effort at Twickenham.

The crucial first try came from Paul O'Connell. That's probably not surprising. He has led the team from the front all season so it was hardly surprising that when an early move seemed to be getting bogged down in front of the Scottish posts, as so many had done in Cardiff last week, O'Connell took it on himself to get the job done and set the wagon rolling. There's talk that he may not grace the Six Nations again. If it's true, the tournament can ill-afford to lose him. Heck, there's no tournament that could afford to lose a man like that.

And if, at times, your heart went out to England who couldn't manage to close the gap despite their enormous contribution to perhaps the greatest match in Six Nations history, a match so full of thrills and momentum switches it seemed to last for several days, we still deserve the title. Because for all the ability of George Ford, Jack Nowell, Ben Youngs and the other young lads who may shortly inherit the Six Nations earth, when it came down to it Ireland shut them down completely in the Aviva.

The 18 tries England purloined from five matches is a remarkable statistic but so is the paltry 56 points we conceded. The fact that our eight tries was the same as Italy scored in the tournament may not make us the moral victors but the national sporting cabinet is so full of moral trophies, we don't have room for any more.

This Irish team doesn't do moral victories but real ones. World Cup here we come.

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