The first rugby yours truly can recall seeing was a video compilation in the home of some extended family many years ago. Thereon was mostly a tale of the great Irish Triple Crown winning teams of the early and mid eighties. Now read on…
Backboned by men like Ciaran Fitzgerald, Donal Lenihan, Michael Bradley, Ollie Campbell and the late Moss Keane. And among the most memorable clips from that era were Michael Kiernan’s drop goal against England and tries scored by Trevor Ringland, ‘Ginger’ McLoughlin and Brendan Mullen.
Another segment of the tape then featured a time when the national team were not as competitive as the era which preceded but still contained a couple of memorable wins over our nearest neighbours and greatest rivals. Made possible by wonderful tries from Simon Geoghegan and Mick Galwey.
Signs of what was to be a truly great period for the oval ball game in this country first emerged when Brian O’Driscoll ran in a hat-trick of five point scores against France in Paris. What followed were some really great days, but, after an abject showing in the last Six Nations it appeared things were going the other way.
Then, Joe Schmidt’s appointment brought a natural refill of confidence. But, after the atrocious efforts against Australia followed by yet more heroic heartache at the hands of New Zealand, there’d be some difficulty in evaluating exactly where things stand before the paramount section of the season.
If the recent evidence produced by the provincial teams is anything to go by, matters may be better placed than might have seemed so a while back. In fact, it’s hard not to feel the Irish evolution is causing quite a stir. For it’s impossible not to – at least in the mind – link the disenchantment of the English clubs with the Heineken Cup to the domination of same by our teams in recent years.
Any such stance would’ve had further weight thrust behind it when all four Irish sides claimed the spoils over one weekend. Undoubtedly the most noteworthy occurrence was Connacht’s French conquest. More of that anon, but, the other three Irish representatives chalked up significant results also.
Ulster continued their resurgence, Munster seem to have found a decent balance between the expansive brand of rugby Rob Penney foisted upon them last year and their own, tried, traditional methods. In any other week, Leinster’s exceptional disposal of a surprisingly feeble Northampton challenge would’ve understandably earned them top billing.
To my mind, it was the best performance by any side in the tournament thus far and marks them down as the team to beat overall. Even they, however, must concede the pedestal on this occasion to the men from the west. What they achieved must surely go down as one of the greatest results in the history of Irish rugby.
Remember, it’s not all that long ago since the idiotic notion of disbanding the Connacht team was being bandied about. It was opined here before that any such proposal was never going to be a runner with Eric Elwood at the helm. The progress the province made under the former fly half is incalculable – after all, he guided them to their first win in the premier competition.
Yet, what those now in the care of Pat Lam achieved most recently is on a different stratosphere. This was Toulouse they took down. The aristocrats of the Heineken Cup. Think Barcelona or Bayern Munich in soccer, Dublin in Gaelic football or Kilkenny in hurling. Then multiply it. There was a price differential of €32m between the budgets of both sides.
Such is the beauty of sport. It comes down to what players on the pitch produce. And Connacht have in their armoury two of the most exciting talents in Ireland – namely Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw. Add in the experience of the likes of Gavin Duffy and, in particular, Dan Parkes and you have a potent force eminently capable of belying the Rabo standing.
Henshaw is perhaps the best signpost. To both the potential of his province and the national team going forward. Already, the Westmeath lad has broken new ground, being the first international from the western province to answer Ireland’s call for far too long. His doing so did, however, vindicate a few expressed here a good while back that some of the Connacht squad were a least worth a look.
Granted, all the optimism expressed to this point was dulled just a little when they unfortunately endured the expected backlash from the perennial French kingpins and Leinster also came undone against a re-invigorated Northampton. In contrast, though, the stock of both Ulster and Munster appears to be on the rise.
And then, of course, there’s the French connection. While the travails – of sorts – of Jonny Sexton continue, the Irish success story in those parts has been that of Bernard Jackman. An effective player in his day turned astute pundit has been making waves on the coaching scene in France and recently landed the top job at burgeoning franchise Grenoble. With another of our exports, James Harte, as his play making scrum half.
Maybe someday he and Conor O’Shea will return and guide fortunes closer to home. Either way, the last couple of weeks have given more cause for optimism than there was post All Blacks.