Dual blogged on Irish News Review
We’ve been a little light on rugby coverage here – let me assure you it was due to an exceptionally hectic Christmas and nothing to do with a Leinster man avoiding writing negatively about the struggling province – but now comes that unmissable time of the year. A time for nostalgia and teary eyes reminiscence. Yes, it’s time for a lookback on the rugby year that was 2014, a long overdue positive one for Irish fans.
January brought optimism with the required amount of caution. Under Ole Saint Joe Ireland had comprehensively put away Samoa, looked completely out to sea against Australia and then tried to give the nation a heart attack in that game against the All Blacks. As relevant as the November games are, the level of anxiety and tension we had to endure during the 2013 series is usually only reserved for the Six Nations or World Cup when it comes to the national team; how would we endure the Spring?
All of this optimism was also accompanied with a nice Irish dab of mournfulness too. That lad in the 13 jersey had announced, definitely, this would be his last season. As he has waxed lyrical himself since, everything then became a last. Last trip to Carton House, last time to put on the green, last time to play team X in stadium Y. Last time to be the most talked about retirement in world rugby. Nothing in relation to Brian O’Driscoll could ever be considered over done, such is the magnitude of his skill and candour, but for Irish rugby fans the tension and anticipation flew through the roof such was the desire for him to get the proper send off. You can rest assured the players were aware but not focused on this particular issue such is the professional attitude, but for everyone else it was the only talking point.
And so it was that Ireland entered their Six Nations opener against Scotland as weird semi-favourites. It was plain to see that they could now do the business, but Scotland always have great potential to be a bogey team and Ireland had shown themselves to be anything but consistent over the last two or three tournaments. It was all up in the air. Then came the kick off. The Scotland game was not Ireland’s most comprehensive outing of the tournament by any means, but it was clear from the game that this was a new Ireland that would not be bullied as in years past and they had resilience we had not seen before. Didn’t hurt either that with seconds on the clock they were still pushing for scores even when they were out of sight, something that would become a staple of the season and of course proved crucial come the end.
With the Flower Of Scotland well and truly trampled (they would go on to mustre only one win out of the campaign), Irish attention shifted to Wales. Given the heartache Wales have dished out to Ireland since the 2011 Six Nations on a consistent basis, this game needed no more hype than it already had. But of course, Gatty dropped BOD. Yes the previous Summer Brian O’Driscoll was dropped from a matchday squad for the first time in his career. Warren Gatland was satan incarnate, a horrible man who would feel the wrath of the shamrock when next he set foot on Irish soil. I should point out that, though I’m talking sarcastically here, I still maintain the dropping of O’Driscoll was highly unnecessary but that we were still dwelling on it nearly a year later was equally unnecessary. As it came to pass “BODgate” was an irrelevance on the day, as Ireland turned up to tame the dragon in a way that would put Saint George to shame. It has been a long time since Wales have looked as shock as they did that day in Landsdowne Road. 56 minutes, that’s how long it took the back to back Six Nations winners and bulk Lions squad suppliers to register a single point on the board, by which stage Ireland had 16 of their own in a pulsating first half. As tends to be the case everytime Ireland register a thumping win over a heavy hitter, you can of course argue for Wales not entirely showing up and being caught cold. But when the opposition are off the mark, any team can beat them, only the best can hammer them. Two from two, Ireland were headed for Twickenham and once again this was looking like a mid tournament decider.
England have had a renaissance to rival Ireland’s since coming under the watchful eye of Stuart Lancaster. Yes, there are still some disciplinary issues to be rectified (any team that counts Dylan Hartley as a leader will suffer from this I suppose); but they are in a far better place than 2011 ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2015. Unfortunately for Ireland they showed this prowess in March as they became the only team to front up adequately in 2014 and take down the Irish juggernaut. Danny Care continued his Lazarus impersonation and proved instrumental in the efforts of the squad, though Mike Brown has surely shown himself to be one of the most important figures on the pitch for Lancaster’s men. Scintillating breaks, one of which led to the decisive try, and some exceptional cover inside his own 22, he will be just as big of a threat come February. Were Ireland caught out, or did England simply just get the better of them? Bit of both I suppose. Not that Ireland were “caught out” exactly, more so that they found themselves faced with a tougher adversary than their last two games combined, and England found themselves driven for the entirety of the tournament by a loss to France that never should have happened. So that was that, Grand Slam and Triple Crown gone but a gargantuan points difference still sitting in Ireland’s favour.
Italy were en route to Dublin in what would be Brian O’Driscoll’s final home game in green. Even though the final send off would be a week later in Paris, this game was nearly tougher to watch for the emotional. Not only was he signing off on Dublin, but he put in one of the best performances of his career. Not a single try from him, rather he did exactly what he spent the latter years of his career doing; making them. Instrumental in three of Ireland’s seven tries, his pass for the third would become one of his final legendary moments to sit alongside Paris 2000, Australia 2001 and more. This could have been the banana skin, Ireland needed points. With England facing Italy on the final weekend and being the only team realistically in the running to compete, their knowledge of how many points they would require was something Ireland had to be aware of. Jack McGrath crossing the try line on the 80 minute mark was exactly what Doctor Schmidt ordered with that in mind. Ireland were 85 points to England’s 32 in the difference, not much more could be asked for.
Except of course the Rose had to give them one last run for their money. You can never know how aware of statistics players are when on the pitch but, were it not for Leonardo Sarto’s 68th minute try in Rome, England were only two kicks away from surpassing Ireland’s points difference. It was a two point margin in Paris as it was, if Ireland had found themselves chasing a margin it could have gone any direction. So many moments became crucial before the kick off in Paris. The last minute score against Italy – and Wales for that matter. The tight margin in Twickenham; and all Ireland had to do was win. Simple enough against a French side that were away with the fairies right? Wrong. Of course, France chose to show up for the first time in the tournament with this final fixture and they looked closer to France of old than they have since. For the first quarter they ran Ireland ragged. Ireland bounced back with two quick scores in the second but still trailed at the break. It took six minutes for Ireland to take the lead that they would not relinquish for the remainder of the game, and it came from France coming within metres of the Irish try line. Quick thinking and even quicker feet brought Ireland to a camp on Les Bleus’ line and over Sexton crossed for his second. They would score nothing but a single penalty a minute later and the rest of the game belonged to France. There was even some scandal and injustice with Szarzewski fairly obviously knocking on in the process of scoring his try, yet Ireland still prevailed. That the final play was a choke tackle from Chris Henry and Devin Toner, later joined by Paul O’Connell and Ian Henderson.spoke wonders. The old guard is around a little while more yet, but the fresh faces have something to say and they’re speaking with their skill. It is one of the most important tackles an Irish side has ever put in, given the context of the impact that Six Nations title has had and will have on the squad’s evolution. And of course that other fella retired, fittingly as a champion. He will never get that World Cup medal, but the last five years have made it a lot easier for him to retire somewhat more content than before. Of course, the season doesn’t end with the Six Nations…
Part 2 to follow
Image courtesy of irishrugby.ie