When Elvis Vermeulen left Ireland all shook up

The Six Nations has a penchant for choreographing finales from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, never more so than when a man called Elvis played the cruellest of tricks on Ireland.

France's No 8 Elvis Vermeulen (second left).

They have lost more than a few titles in time-honoured fashion but never in the foyer of a Roman hotel standing amongst other guests peering at a television monitor screening the dying moments of a match in Paris.

As last stands go, it remains in a class all by itself, a case of the helpless suffering at the hands of the hapless.

Scotland, besieged deep in their own 22, only had to hold out for a few seconds more at the denouement of the 2007 championship and the nod would come down from on high for someone to tie the trophy in ribbons of green.

Eddie O’Sullivan’s squad had set a challenging target earlier on that fateful St Patrick’s Day, their romp in Rome leaving France to win by 24 points. That they had the advantage of knowing exactly what they had to do raised inevitable questions.

As luck would have it, the players reached their hotel to find the French one try short of the required total until Elvis, as in Vermeulen, the Clermont No. 8, rumbled over in the corner.

Referral to the TMO prolonged the misery, leaving Brian O’Driscoll and company no alternative but to await confirmation of what they already knew, that their pockets had been picked.

It will not make those on the wrong end of daylight robbery feel any better to learn that had the new scoring system been in operation then, Vermeulen’s try wouldn’t even have merited a footnote in history.

For some of Ireland’s most decorated players, bonus points have come to pass 10 years too late.

Had they been applied in 2007, the course of history would have taken a different turn. Instead of losing the title to an infuriatingly tiny matter of points difference, Ireland would have finished one point clear at the top, undisputed champions.

Even had they been able to turn the clock back and claim the most retrospective of crowns, the players concerned would still feel short-changed, less so but short-changed just the same. Time has hardly eased the collective dressing-room view that they had a Grand Slam for the taking and let it slip on the biggest Irish stage of all.

Croke Park, the steepling GAA shrine on the north side of Dublin, had been borrowed during the reconstruction of Lansdowne Road. More than 81,000 packed the place to the rafters for a Six Nations’ baptism which would have marked one of Irish sport’s great occasions but for the last minute or so.

Ronan O’Gara claimed a double distinction that day, kicking Ireland’s first points at their cavernous new home and duly following it with his country’s first try.

W

ith England and Wales in varying degrees of disarray and Scotland distracted at dodging the wooden spoon, Ireland knew a home win over France would give them a clear run to their first Slam since the late 1940s.

They recovered from an uncertain start, conceding 13 points well within the first quarter. In the course of accounting for every Irish point, O’Gara’s late fourth penalty meant the French had to score a try. With time almost up, all Ireland had to do was take care of the restart.

They messed it up, big time.

“They (France) hadn’t scored for 65 minutes,” O’Gara said in his autobiography. “Then we blew it. We thought we had it won. I thought we had it won. Some of the lads switched off. Suicide. We didn’t deal with their restart and they got lucky with the bounce. But after that it had nothing to do with luck. They needed a try and we should have been able to stop it.’’

As France went for the kill, their matador on the left wing applied the fateful flourish. Years later, O’Gara was still tormenting himself about Vincent Clerc’s try and whether he ought not to have prevented it.

“At one stage in the move I had a chance to go in from an offside position to clear out Pierre Mignoni (France’s scrum-half) and concede a penalty. I would have been sin-binned but it would have been worth it. The thought only came to me in the video room days later. It would have been cynical but it might have been the difference between winning and losing. In rugby, all the best teams cheat.’’

Ireland responded by thrashing England as they had never thrashed them before by 30 points, the margin leaving nobody who witnessed it in any doubt that a historic opportunity had been missed against the French in the previous round. England then proceeded to do their tormentors another unwitting favour in the penultimate round. Their home win over France and Ireland’s frantic, one-point survival at Murrayfield set up the grandstand finish.

A shave even closer than the one at ‘Croker’ the previous month condemned O’Driscoll’s team to lose a photo-finish by the shortest of heads.

Elvis’s late try having left them all shook up, a team featuring some of the greatest Irish players of all-time would not be denied the ultimate prize much longer.

When they delivered the Grand Slam in Cardiff two years later, it turned out to be all the sweeter for the wait…


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