Sport Six Nations

Friday 20 April 2018

Passion play will dictate where lies the power and the Grand glory

For once, the spoils are not bound for England; they are the spoilers. Confident Ireland travel to London in expectation, not hope, but will history heed Ireland's call?

Keith Wood leads his Irish team on a lap of honour after beating England in 2001 – something he later said he regretted. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Keith Wood leads his Irish team on a lap of honour after beating England in 2001 – something he later said he regretted. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Destiny awaits Joe Schmidt's side in Twickenham. Three times this century, they have denied England a Grand Slam; now the football boots are on other feet as the English seek to do unto the away side what was visited upon them in 2001, 2011 and 2017.

"This is unknown territory for an Ireland side," warns Victor Costello, part of the 2001 collective that, following the path of Wales and Scotland, denied England a Grand Slam at the final hurdle in three successive seasons.

 

"I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road."

- Stephen Hawking

 

Mary McAleese shakes hands with Martin Johnson in the controversial incident where the England captain refused to adhere to protocol and stand to the left with his team-mates in 2003. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mary McAleese shakes hands with Martin Johnson in the controversial incident where the England captain refused to adhere to protocol and stand to the left with his team-mates in 2003. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Now it is Ireland who will feel the heat against an English side lurching into disrepute on the back of two dispiriting championship defeats and a scattergun head coach.

In the past, Ireland hoped; today, Ireland expects. For the Irish in London, it is an unfamiliar feeling.

It seems natural to simply suggest that England will, as Ireland try-scorer Iain Henderson confirmed last year, be driven by the desire to simply arrest the potential for a Grand Slam.

But they have never been here before so how do we know?

"It was always easier to stop the Chariot because the Chariot never saw it coming," says Costello.

"I live in London. The Irish do very well over here because the English are very rule-book and process-driven, they don't think with passion.

"They don't think with pride. They are a very regimented race so when things don't go well, they don't necessarily have a Plan B.

Napping "Now we've awoken that thought process. They are thinking of how to beat us. We've caught them napping before. But when we've ever needed to beat them, we haven't done it, for example in 2003.

"In work, in business, in sport, England don't notice us. It's not that they don't rate us. They don't notice us. But this week, for one small moment in time, they are giving us a little more attention than they normally do on the sporting field.

"The English don't recognise Irish people or success. Usually in weeks like this, they look at us and think, 'Ah, they're all up in Cheltenham.' They try to claim Bob Geldof and Daniel Day Lewis.

"But now they're aware of a real threat and Ireland haven't been in that position before. It's the first time both these countries have had to think things in a new way.

"Will it affect the way England play, will it enhance them the way we saw it with Ireland last season?

"And if England discover that power, passion and pace, with the hostile crowd, can Ireland match that? Sometimes rugby reverts back to the old virtues of the sport and maybe England, for once, might be happy to benefit from that."

Another friend who works in London speaks of the occasionally patronising deference to the Irish.

"We love to think we're at the forefront of things but we are totally not. They are indifferent at worst, fawning at best. 'Oh, my granny is from Carlow!' In any event, London is a football town, most of the city won't know there's a match on.

"It will mean a lot to the tight-knit communities. And while they might normally say to us, 'Oh, we don't mind losing to you guys,' it might be a bit different this week. Paddy has a bit of a strut on."

Ireland, with nearly a half a team who have never lost a Six Nations game, and just as many who have never played here for Ireland - or anyone else - might do well to calibrate the sense of occasion.

Perhaps it was no bad thing that Christy Moore came into camp and rabble-roused on Monday night; 'Joxer' might be an alien figure to this new breed of Irish player but, equally, they need to know that, regardless of the high stakes, England playing Ireland is not "just another match".

Revenge for Skibbereen may mean nothing any more but that doesn't necessarily mean that all historical relevance has removed from this fixture; England are the mighty, the strong and, in their citadel, how can they bow to a perceived lesser?

Processes and game-plans and flip-boards cannot possibly prepare Ireland with all the armoury required to confront the passion and fury that awaits.

"A home side will always have a drop more passion once there is no early score that puts them on their a**e," says Costello.

"Once we start hearing 'Swing Low', you know the emotions will be flying for them on and off the pitch. This is one of those games where there is a lot more going on than game-plans and processes."

Schmidt makes the same point but in a different way.

"Getting that try in the first quarter last year sparked a bit of confidence and a real determination that, if we could stay in front, obviously you get the result at the end of the day.

"That passion and determination, it's got to be balanced with a degree of confidence and a degree of building through the match.

"Not just, 'Right we're going to be passionate at the start', because that will start to fall off if things go against you and you're under pressure the whole time because mentally it is very hard to stay up all the time."

Momentum can come from anywhere at any moment.

Thirty years ago this week, this fixture was tied 3-3 at half-time; England had scored neither a win nor a try all championship.

Suddenly, the floodgates opened, Chris Oti scored a hat-trick and 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' was born in the stands, a verse as anachronistic to the 21st century as any blood-thirsty rebel song.

From then on, Irish victories against England returned to its well-worn status in the annual calendar; the dark days of the 1990s are coloured only by glory days against England.

By the start of this century, the mood music remained the same - as did its singer.

Christy Moore also featured when Ireland celebrated their 2001 win against England, following a day-long session involving clay-pigeon shooting and copious amounts of beer.

The day before, U2 had blared from the speakers, Bertie Ahern was chaired from the dressing-room by Alan Quinlan and Ronan O'Gara.

Keith Wood, the captain, led his team on a lap of honour. "I always regretted that," he says. England would go on to win the World Cup; Ireland never have. But beating England was special; defeating their superiority.

In 2018, Ireland need to win to demonstrate theirs. England have their backs to the wall again this year. Their mantra this week has been to ignore the history of how others have spoiled their Grand Slam quests; they have enough turmoil to deal with in the now.

But history is inescapable as it shapes the present.

Martin Johnson - a survivor of 2011 too - calls the 2011 Dublin defeat of the team he coached a "scar"; current captain Dylan Hartley describing the "dirty feeling"of his well-lubricated team being handed a trophy, during a shambolic ceremony, in a hotel lobby hours after defeat.

It cannot escape them that teams thrive not merely on preventing an opposition achieving great things, but an opposition wearing an English shirt. The mighty, fallen.

"That's what happens when you used to run the world isn't it?" James Haskell, another veteran of Grand Slam disappointments against Ireland, said this week.

"It's down to empire-building. It got done a long, long time ago. I was nothing to do with it. I never once got in my boat and said: 'Right you're part of Great Britain.' I can't be held responsible for it.

Factors "I try to approach my life in sport with passion, intensity and a desire to come out on top and win. I don't hate anyone.

"There are people I dislike but I don't have that. When you're playing for England you want to stay involved, you want to win at all costs and you want to win - and those are motivating factors enough. The emotion of having to throw your head at someone's knees and fire in takes it up. That might spill over a bit or whatever.

"It's an easy motivation factor for other sides because of the long, entrenched history. It's very difficult for us to say that. If you know your history we are partly to blame."

Former England captain Will Carling once used this fuel to stoke his own team's fire after 1990 defeat to Scotland; they would win two Grand Slams in the next two years.

"When we play these guys at rugby they hate us and they make no bones about it," said Carling. "But if we tell them we hate them, they're shocked. Sometimes it isn't in the rules. The English are the hated, not the haters. I just tell them, you hate me so I'll hate you and let's leave it at that."

Carling's successor, Johnson, lost on the field and off the field with a Grand Slam at stake but won it when it mattered in 2003.

"Everyone around the world would have been rooting for the Ireland," said the man whose team, literally, would not budge for anyone. "My response was 'F**k you all, we are going to beat you and we don't give a f**k."

That is the mindset Ireland must seek to conquer this afternoon.

"We've woken them up," says Costello. "We've rattled England and it's hard to remember the last time we've seen a rattled England. If Ireland score first, that will put doubt in their minds.

"England have power and pace. If you throw passion into that, sometimes the team that wants it more always still tells a lot in terms of the outcome of rugby, a contact sport.

"And the last time Ireland met that was in the World Cup against Argentina and we know what happened then.

"Process might not work against passion if it's matched by power and pace. They're an arrogant side, it's in their DNA. Whatever they say, they won't like us coming to win the Grand Slam."

It is an occasion that calls for cool heads, all the experts say. But when the passion and desire ignites, will there be enough ice to douse the flames?

Sport is played in the heart as much as the mind; Ireland, ruthless, clinical and calculated for a year now, have not played their best rugby this campaign and still they are in far better form than England. They are the better side. Haven't we heard this story before?

Which is why winning this Grand Slam will be a massive achievement for this Irish side. But doing so at the home of English rugby will make it the greatest of all time.

 

A TALE OF TWO GRAND SLAMS . . .

2009

February 7, 2009, Croke Park

Ireland 30 France 21

February 15, 2009, Stadio Flamino

Italy 9 Ireland 38

February 28, 2009, Croke Park

Ireland 14 England 13

March 14, 2009, Murrayfield

Scotland 15 Ireland 22

Mar 21, 2009, Millennium Stadium

Wales 15 Ireland 17

 

1948

January 17, 1948, Stadio

Olympique de Colombes

France 6 Ireland 13

February 14, 1948, Twickenham

England 10 Ireland 11

February 28, 1948,

Lansdowne Road

Ireland 6 Scotland 0

Mar 13, 1948, Ravenhill

Ireland 6 Wales 3

Cian Tracey

Irish Independent

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