Big news. Distressing news. Bigger than the death of a Pope, more distressing even than Willie O’Dea announcing his retirement from politics and departure for a life of silence in a Trappist monastery. It turns out that the other Greatest Living Limerick Man, Paul O’Connell, has a chest infection and has had to cry off.
Down at pitchside Ronan O’Gara announces that he can’t begin to describe the qualities that Paulie brings to the team. Then he proceeds to disprove himself comprehensively by describing them in minute detail. The intensity of the man, the way he drives his colleagues on, the demands he puts on them, the ‘psychotic eye’ of him. The output of the Irish pack will be ‘25% less’ in his absence, Ronan estimates.
“He’s not a once-in-a-generation player, he’s a freak.” Heaven forbid the innocent viewer ever ends up in a room with O’Connell and Roy Keane. Imagine all those psychotic eyes. Eeek! And you thought the all-seeing eye of Mordor was frightening...
Back in studio the all-seeing eyes of the RTÉ panel muse that Scotland have an experienced bench who could make a difference if they’re still in the game after 60 minutes. They also have Maitland and Hogg, who sound like the kind of dubious legal firm the Law Society would spend five years investigating before giving them a gentle tap on the wrist. It falls to George Hook to stop them going overboard with the jeremiads. “This is Scotland. This isn’t being hanged in the morning [And full marks to him for his correct use of ‘hanged’ rather than ‘hung’ The benefits of a Pres education].”
But Scotland have won three of the last five meetings between the sides, Tom McGurk unhelpfully points out. The panel aren’t having any truck with such geeky irritants. George: “I don’t care.” Conor O’Shea: “They’ve beaten us because psychologically we were going out expecting to win.” Today there’s only one thing to expect: it’s Scotland, so it’ll be grim.
For 35 minutes the fare is indeed grimmer than the grimmest day of the year in Grim Land, whereupon Jonathan Sexton shows the footwork of Michael Flatley to dance past a slew of blue shirts and the speed of Usain Bolt to race half the length of the field before slinging out a monster pass that Jamie Heaslip only just fails to score from. But Ireland recycle the ball and as the clock hits red Andrew Trimble crosses the line in the far corner. Conor is old enough to compare Sexton’s sleight of foot to Tony Ward in his prime. George, who’s even older, compares it to Phil Bennett making the break for that try by the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park. That’s what you call high praise.
Seven minutes after the restart the home pack drive their way over the enemy line and Heaslip, with both feet firmly in play this time, and Rory Best combine to touch down for a kind of dead-heat try. Suddenly it’s 18-6 and that, as Tony avers, is “a big lead in the context of this match”. A Sexton penalty shortly afterwards means that the dreaded 60-minute mark comes and goes with Scotland well adrift. Anything they manage off the bench now will be to minimise the damage as opposed to win the match.
They fail on both counts and proceedings close with Ryle Nugent, already looking ahead to bigger challenges, hoping for a fourth try in case the championship is decided on points. Dave Kearney almost obliges with a bravura effort in injury time but the ball had hit the whitewash before bouncing back and Ireland have to be satisfied with scoring two of the most dazzling ‘tries’ never to be awarded.
Back in studio George unbends sufficiently to acknowledge that a 28-6 victory with “misfire in certain areas” constitutes grounds for reasonable happiness. Naturally it won’t be as easy next time out against Wales. Then again, as Conor declares, “there are matches where you spike and next Saturday is a spike”.
And hey, guess who’ll be back for that one? Him and his psychotic eye.
Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming.
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