Ireland’s win over England, and Wales’ loss to France means that the men in green are now the only team left in the championship that can reach the pinnacle of Northern Hemisphere rugby by claiming the coveted Grand Slam in the Six Nations.
Ireland’s victories over France on the opening day, Italy a couple of weeks ago, and now England have all been different types of games, with three different challenges – challenges that Declan Kidney’s side have managed to overcome. But the crucial question is whether Ireland can maintain this momentum and claim that elusive Grand Slam?
Ireland have won the fewest Six/Five Nations championships out of all of the five long established members of the elite playing nations. They haven’t won the championship since 1985, and haven’t won a Grand Slam since 1948 – their one and only slam. So, historically at least, Ireland don’t know what their winning formula is. They don’t know what it takes to win a championship, or a Grand Slam.
Yes they’ve won the Triple Crown three times in the last five years, but, ultimately, the Triple Crown is a case of “losing gold”, not “winning silver”. This winning mentality, or rather, the lack thereof, is perhaps best exemplified by the current “Golden Generation” of Ireland players.
Prior to the 2007 World Cup, Ireland were on a high. They had beaten the Southern Hemisphere in the shape of Australia, and were buoyed by the potential of their players, who, in theory should have been hitting their peak. I was at the Ireland vs France game, and, frankly, Ireland were dire. They weren’t much better against Georgia, and visibly lacked confidence against an Argentine side simply oozing it. Ireland, unfortunately, have a history of being that team. The team that gets so close, but then falls at the last hurdle.
But this has not been the case so far in this year’s Six Nations championship. Ireland’s opening day victory against France in Croke Park is easily the game of the tournament so far. A rampant Ireland side showed hunger, desire, and tenacity with a new formula featuring the old guard of O’Driscoll, Hayes and O’Gara mixed with the young blood of Heaslip, Kearney and Fitzgerald. The open nature of the game was a joy to watch with both teams throwing the ball around, and both teams playing with a passion and desire to win.
Ireland eventually won the game 30-21 and went into their next game against perennial whipping boys Italy with confidence. France, on the other hand knew that they had to dig deep afterwards. Since the defeat they have gone on to record a professional win against Scotland, but, perhaps more impressively, showed real hunger and dynamism to beat current champions Wales by 21-26 at the Stade de France. Without undermining Ireland’s achievement in beating France, perhaps they drew them at the right time as France emerge as very real contenders for the championship despite their opening day loss.
And then there was the Italy game. The records will show that Ireland won the game comfortably by 38-9 at the Stadio Flaminio, but those watching will know that it was a hard fought game with the score somewhat flattering Ireland, and certainly portraying a level of dominance which Ireland perhaps didn’t muster.
The next to line-up against the men in green were England, and, let’s be honest, the 14-13 win for Ireland will not go down in Six Nations history as a classic encounter. All the elements were there for fireworks, but all we got was a damp squib. Ireland’s battling victory has been written off in the press as a direct result of England’s poor discipline, with 18 penalties conceded and 2 sin binnings hindering England’s efforts – without which, the media maintains, England would have won the game.
However, as the old saying goes “If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans, there’d be no need for tinkers”. England may have missed their opportunity to beat Ireland at Croker, but, equally, Ireland missed their chance to put England to the sword, with Ronan O’Gara missing 11 points in very kickable opportunities. What would the press have been saying if the score line had read 24-12 to Ireland?
So, after recording a flamboyant victory against France, a professional victory against Italy, and a hard-fought battle against England, the crucial question is whether Ireland can maintain this momentum for another two rounds?
As an Ireland fan, I’m fairly confident that the team will go into the game at the Millennium Stadium against Wales with their Grand Slam credentials still intact. My worry is whether they can sum up the energy, dynamism and flair of the team we saw against France in order to beat Wales. Wales are hurting after their loss at the weekend, and will take out their frustrations on Italy next weekend.
They will also field a weakened team to rest their big guns for the decider against Ireland. Ireland meanwhile will need to play in a consistent manner to beat Scotland, and will more than likely field a similar team to that which has lined up in each game so far (injuries permitting).
But do they have enough to break down the rampant Welsh ? If Ireland play like they did against England, then the answer is simply “No”. If Ronan O’Gara sinks into a dark pit (as he did against Italy and England), then the answer is, again, “No”. However, if they play with passion, with heart, with the young and old guns firing on all cylinders, and with vigour as per their victory against France then the answer is a definite…”Maybe”.
By John White