By Diarmuid O’Flynn
AND so, it came to pass; just as I predicted, we beat Wales, and by 26 points at that. Happy? No, I’m not.
The atmosphere inside Lansdowne Road was poor, watery (you didn't have to be there, and I wasn't, more pressing matters in Thurles, but TV is enough to inform), the attitude generally, nationwide, is all wrong.
A couple of weeks ago in this column, after the Paris debacle, I mentioned my disappointment at the attitude of many of our highest-profile media experts to this Irish rugby team. These are the guys setting the tone for everyone else, these are the experts informing the rest of us plebs where we should be setting the bar, on our expectations.
Let me take you back to Sunday, the RTÉ studio. George Hook tells us that Wales are going to win because, he pontificates, they have a better back-row, better half-backs, better props. He is not challenged on this. This is what I felt, what I told anyone who was willing to listen in the lead-up to the game: Ireland would win by at least 20 points.
We should have beaten Wales last year in Cardiff, didn't, beat ourselves instead. This year, we're at home, Wales are decimated by injury, between six and ten front-line players absent while Ireland are practically at full strength, Donncha O'Callaghan a worthy replacement for the magnificent Paul O'Connell, young sensation Andrew Trimble in place of Denis Hickie 20 points the better team, Ireland, at least. Then, with the injury to Stephen Jones, it should have been 40, but I'll settle for 26. But George? Look, I like the man, love his wit, his wisdom, his way with words, the dash of humour he brings to an unfailingly outstanding RTÉ studio broadcast.
On this one, though, he's wrong, a throwback to all the ould Irish negativity. Even Conor O'Shea, another fine addition to the RTÉ stable, was nervous, feeling 'in his waters' that Wales might down us, though plumping for Ireland out of patriotism.
Why is it that the only bit of optimism, the only really positive assessment of this current Irish squad, comes from the Kiwi, Brent Pope? Why does it take an outsider, albeit a guy who is now one of our own, to appreciate the magnificent talent we have all over the field? It's because of the fog, the mist, the hundreds of years of pessimism, of failure.
You expect it from outside, from across the pond especially. Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times, a guy who never ceases to amaze me with the shallowness of his knowledge of Irish rugby, did position-by-position ratings of both teams, in which he castigated the two Irish props; go to his main preview piece then, and he mentions how Ireland are stronger up front. Consistency?
Worst of all, his assessment of Peter Stringer. It's become fashionable to belittle the Irish scrum-half, he's now suffering from the same bandwagon criticism as John Hayes. True, he had a downturn in form last year, the result, I believe, of having paid too much attention to that bandwagon, and attempting to change his game so he could tour with the Lions. But he's back, better than ever, and his form this season has been outstanding. But Jones? Blind.
Look, I'll say it again; this is an immensely talented Irish team. The coach too, for all my criticism of most of his team selections, his conservative game-plans for the last few years, is top notch. They haven't blended yet, the players in the team, team and coach, but they're getting closer and closer, and when they do, they will be a match for any team in rugby, and I mean ANY team. As a unit, 1 to 15, and back-ups, this is the most talented group Ireland has ever had. Examine them. O'Driscoll is a freak, absolutely brilliant on both sides of the ball; Shane Horgan is one of the best backs in the game, and I exclude nobody (the experts will all probably scoff at that again, but I make no apology); Geordan Murphy is poetry in motion, D'Arcy up there with him, and this youngster Trimble is going to be something else. O'Gara has made more than his share of errors this year, but he's the best in the world at much of what an out-half is supposed to do, in his primary duties, his kicking and distribution, and his tackling, while still guilty of the occasional miss, has improved immensely, is never less than brave.
Stringer? Again, in the basics, up with the best; his pass is unsurpassed, and he's a snapper, always on the heels of his pack, always at the breakdown, strong off left and right. His courage is immense, his tackling superb, box-kicking decent; his break? Could be better, but that doesn't condemn him.
As for the pack, slow starters, for some reason, but look to the second half against Wales, against France, well on top. Ball-carriers? Wallace, Flannery, Leamy, Horan, Easterby, O'Connell, O'Callaghan, O'Kelly, even big John is getting in on the act these days.
Scotland arrive in less than two weeks. They were brilliant against England, I cheered their courage, their passion, all the way to the end, but man for man, we're better. Much better. We should win, we must win; I'll take a one-point margin, but it should be more, much more. Then, England, Twickenham, Triple Crown, Championship. Am I getting ahead of myself? No. Should have been a Grand Slam.