KIERAN SHANNON: Another Slam is needed to mark this golden era
By Kieran Shannon
He was making a stand for sure, but when an unflinching Martin Johnson would not be moved from that red carpet in Lansdowne Road 10 years ago, no one could have known that year would represent a last stand for England too.
Although the life cycle of that team was approaching its climax in the form of Johnson holding the Webb Ellis aloft later that same year, the decline and disintegration of that team was far more sudden and spectacular than anyone at the time could have envisaged.
Put it like this — even though Ireland had also headed into that Lansdowne showdown one game from the Triple Crown, Slam and championship and were undoubtedly a side on the rise, could anyone have foreseen that over the next decade Ireland would win the head-to-head count between the countries in Six Nations clashes by a resounding 7-2? A setup that had moved worlds to become the best in the world would so suddenly and sure be reduced to routine whipping boys for their little neighbours across the sea. It is another measure of just what a remarkable period for Irish rugby this has been, in which time four Triple Crowns have been annexed. England over the same timeline have won none.
Yet during all that time Ireland have translated all that dominance into just the one Championship, the same tally as England.
Ireland’s undoubtedly carried more weight, coming in the form of a Slam in 2009, in contrast to England’s anticlimactic 2011 campaign which finished with a comprehensive defeat in the Aviva, but a bit like the Cork footballers of recent years, Ireland’s astonishing consistency has astonishingly only the one Big One to show for it.
That is why Sunday, in a way, is as vital as that monumental game in the old ground 10 years ago. It may not be the concluding game of the championship but it is the decisive game of the championship. While the 2003 clash was the Red Carpet game, this weekend is a Red Sea game. Everything opens up for Ireland or England should they successfully negotiate this one. The Crown, the Slam, the Championship.
Last Saturday was one of the most thrilling performances and days of the entire Kidney era but though it rekindled the spirit of 2009 in so many ways (our opening win that year over France was 30-21) there are other historical precedents which explain why our optimism is guarded.
You’ll remember the euphoria that greeted the win over Australia at the 2011 World Cup. How that semi-final spot finally seemed ours. All we had to do was beat a Welsh team we had beaten in eight of our previous 11 head-to-heads. But of course, typical Wales, they tripped us up, and when they beat us again the following February in the Aviva, they went on to win a Slam.
That was their third Slam in eight years. In that time they had won just half their Six Nations games when Ireland had won 68 percent of theirs. And yet the Welsh had three times as many Slams and Championships as Brian O’Driscoll.
In fact, since O’Driscoll made his Championship debut in 2000, Ireland have won only two games less than France in the Six Nations. And yet the French have won five times more Championships in that time.
Ireland’s millennium consistency in this championship needs a tangible and just reward in the shape of another Championship. O’Driscoll’s consistency and brilliance demands it.
Of course he has led an exceptional career with unprecedented success. His predecessor as team captain was Keith Wood who retired at the same World Cup that Johnson tasted ultimate glory. Wood was a winner but he never even won a single Triple Crown. He didn’t win a Heineken Cup either, even though it was him more than anyone during his 2000 sabbatical with Munster who got his native province aspiring towards such things.
O’Driscoll has won four Triple Crowns, three Heinekens and that ‘09 Slam and championship.
And yet it isn’t enough. It doesn’t adequately reflect what he has served up in green year after year at this time of year. Since that Slam in ‘09 he hasn’t won anything else in green, the team conspiring to blow the 2010 Triple Crown against Scotland.
The Red Carpet game remains the only time O’Driscoll has lost to England on Irish turf in the Six Nations. England may come to Lansdowne a more dynamic and bolder side than the one who last landed here two years ago but so are Ireland courtesy of the Zebo effect.
O’Driscoll is no longer Ireland’s official captain and he is too much of a gentleman not to abide by proper pre-match protocol on Sunday. But take it that in his actions and attitude he will be as defiant and ruthless as Johnson ever was 10 years ago. He’ll make a stand because in so many ways it’s his last as well.
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