A new Six Nations campaign and a familiar old face is missing. The face of Irish rugby, a man admired by millions, a great moral and spiritual leader, a crucial part of the fabric of the nation.
In the name of all that’s good and holy, how are we possibly going to survive without George Hook? He is absent. Departed. Imithe. Elsewhere. (That chap of the O’Connells is no longer with us either but that’s neither here nor there.) As if to acknowledge the void, RTÉ have temporarily done away with the studio and Daire O’Brien is pitchside with Ronan O’Gara, Shane Horgan and Conor O’Shea.
The retirement of Captain Hook may constitute good news for viewers of a nervous disposition but it’s extremely bad news for people who have to write about TV coverage of the match. The presence of George was a permanent comfort blanket. Mr Foghorn always had something to say for himself, usually by means of a loudhailer, and he never minded if it was vaguely preposterous. The more preposterous, in fact, the better.
He was like a good scrum-half slinging a pass to his number 10. Nice length and line, always giving the reviewer something to take possession of and work with. In case of boredom, break glass and reach for the Hook.
But not today, Josephine. Bah. The panel aren’t optimistic about the outcome and have every right not to be. Ireland’s retirements, Ireland’s injuries, the size of that Welsh team. Oooh-er. They have a Samson in the front row. They have the 6’9 Luke Charteris in the second row. Their out-half is even bigger. Dan Biggar. (Badoom! I’m here all championship.) Still, Ireland get off to a flier and after half an hour are full value for their 13-0 lead. By the interval Wales have it back to 13-10. The panel aren’t unduly worried. No need to push any panic buttons, Ronan advises. Momentum switches in matches all the time, Conor adds. There are going to be ebbs and flows, Shane points out. All very philosophical, all wholly undeniable.
Off they go again. Within five minutes it’s 13-all. The rain comes down. The ground is slippier than Sepp Blatter. The next 30 minutes are scoreless but gruelling, and that’s just watching. At one stage Wales go through 27 phases, with bodies spread-eagled on the ground everywhere. It looks like the aftermath of a two-hour speech by Joan Burton.
“Warrior stuff from both sides,” Ryle Nugent declares, yet already Donal Lenihan is looking at the bigger picture and fretting over the six-day turnaround to Paris next Saturday. “This battle is going to take something out of these players,” he predicts. The mind scrolls back to the events of last autumn. Does this mean Wales are France and France will be Argentina? Eeek.
With eight minutes remaining the Irish jig looks to be up as Rhys Priestland makes it 16-13. A minute later Johnny Sexton shrugs off a bang on the head to level matters with a penalty he squeezes inside the right-hand upright from distance: not so much grace under pressure as grace under, presumably, a splitting headache. And that’s it. All square. Justice done.
The post-mortem is full-on existentialism. To what extent is this particular draw the equivalent of, as the old line has it, kissing your sister? CJ Stander, the man of the match, confesses to Clare McNamara he’s harbouring “mixed emotions”, then mentions his wife. Lucky for him. He can kiss her instead. This isn’t Appalachia.
Rory Best admits “nobody is happy with that” (the draw, not the matrimonial situation chez Stander) before adding that it’s “better than a loss”. Sam Warburton deems it an “okay result” from the visitors’ point of view. Ronan, now back in a studio with the rest of them, deems it “reasonably okay” from the point of view of the hosts, Shane calls it a “magnificent performance” and Conor hails the game as the best of the weekend by a mile.
The award for the zinger of the afternoon goes to Daire, however. “It’s a bit like getting five numbers on the Lotto.” Would George Hook have done better than that? Doubtful.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved