The longest day. It’s going to be emotional. It’s also going to be arduous and attritional and draining. And that’s only the first 10 minutes from Cardiff. And that’s just for the spectators, not the players.
“Absolute carnage,” is Keith Wood’s prediction beforehand. He’s not wrong. After half an hour Johnny Sexton has limped off. By half-time Paul O’Connell, the moral and spiritual leader not simply of the Ireland team but also the entire Irish nation, is similarly hors de combat. Midway through the second half Peter O’Mahony, another of the main men, is buggied away (no sniggering, please – I said ‘buggied’) on, er, a buggy.
The TV3 panel somehow manage to get two minutes to themselves at the interval to discuss things. This is two minutes either side of a six-minute ad break and a five-minute ad break. Obviously revenue is important, but if the powers that be at the station have notions of supplanting RTÉ as the home of rugby debate they might want to reconsider this strategy.
Eight minutes after the restart, with Ireland pressing, comes a juncture that even to this rugby ignoramus on the sofa has a heightened feel about it. The Bard would have termed it a tide in the affairs of men. Stuart Barnes, less lyrically but no less accurately, calls it “a moment they must strike”. They do. Over goes Rob Kearney and the men in green take a half-nelson on the match they will not relinquish.
It’s 24-9 at the final whistle. No Sexton, O’Connell or O’Mahony, yet every man remaining is Sexton, O’Connell and O’Mahony. I am Spartacus indeed.
“If I were an Irishman I’d be very proud of my country today,”
Stuart declares generously.
Time for a nice cup of tea and a switch of channel from the men in green to the boys in green. We’re off to Warsaw via Montrose, where John Giles “wouldn’t be too hopeful”, Eamon Dunphy “wouldn’t be optimistic” and Liam Brady is sufficiently gracious and self-deprecating to admit that he’s “given up predictions after Thursday night”.
(Bizarrely, TV3 are still analysing Kearney’s try while all this is going on. Good Lord: How many more ad breaks have they crowbarred into the broadcast in the meantime?)
Poland go one up after 12 minutes by way of a well worked corner routine and an emphatic finish from Krychowiak, or “Cracker-weah” as Liam calls him at half-time. Scarcely has the ball been pucked out than Shane Long, clearly outside the area, wins the most fortuitous of penalties that Jonathan Walters smacks home.
“That’s two goals out of the way,” George Hamilton notes.
We are halfway to the 2-2 that will see Ireland through. Oh dear. We are that close to an automatic qualifying spot and it is kind of disturbing. Me nerves. Everyone’s nerves.
Shortly before half-time the hosts regain the lead through the ludicrously prolific Lewandowski with what seems like the 73rd goal he’s scored in his last four outings for Bayern Munich and Poland. Near enough to it anyway.
The panel are less than whelmed. The quality, grumbles John, has been “awful”. Ireland may not finish with 11 men, warns Liam, who asserts that the visitors are “too pumped up” and nominates John O’Shea as a prime candidate for a second yellow card.
In keeping with one of the themes of the day Long goes off injured in the second half. It’s still 2-1 to Poland when, with 10 minutes left, another of those heightened moments beloved of the Bard materialises.
Aidan McGeady stands up a cross from the right and there to meet it in the middle of the box, a few yards out, is...
Rob Kearney? Robbie Keane, even? Unfortunately it is Richard Keogh and with the entire net to aim at he contrives to plant his header straight at a suitably grateful Fabianski.
“Is that the miss that condemns us to a playoff?” George wonders. It is.
Oh, and John O’Shea gets sent off as predicted.
Thus the longest day closes. It’s been emotional and arduous and attritional and draining. Me nerves. Everyone’s nerves. Still, there’s another hour till closing time. I’m outta here. Me poor nerves need soothing, pronto.
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