Six Nations: What might have been for Ireland
And so ends another RBS Six Nations Championship, the 2011 version having been of the singularly inconclusive variety.
The bare facts? England are champions having finished with eight points by virtue of winning four of their five matches, scoring more points than anyone else — 132 — touching down 13 tries in the process and by virtue of leaking only 81 points finishing with a defensive record matched only by Ireland.
Sounds pretty emphatic put like that.
But it flatters the newly-crowned champions enormously and simultaneously makes Irish supporters winch in recognition of what might have been, their upset doubtless fuelled by the events of Saturday past at the Aviva Stadium where England were out-thought, out-fought, outplayed — in a word, outclassed — by the side which finished third.
In professional sport the unending refrain is the small margins between success and failure at the top level. And with the dust now settling on the 2011 Six Nations, it is impossible not to agree with them.
That is because there are other facts beyond the stark statistics. The final table, for example, tells nothing of the nature of Ireland’s two losses in the Championship race just ended. It fails to recognise that they might have been champions or even Grand Slam winners
Alas the 25-22 home defeat by France killed off any Slam notions Ireland may have had. Yet Ireland won that match everywhere but on the scoreboard. They played superior football, outscoring the defending champions and previous season’s Grand Slam winners by three tries to one, only to be undone by their concession of cheap penalties for trivial, wholly avoidable offences.
France’s February 12 win was far more attributable to that than to any of the creativity or flair for which they are famed. The truth is that Ireland beat themselves by conceding 3.33 penalties for each touchdown they made. Do the maths.
Even then they would have emerged triumphant had not replacement hooker Sean Cronin spilled the ball within diving distance of the French line right at the death, this after a great passage by the hosts in carving out a golden opportunity. At that, adieu Grand Slam hopes. Such are the margins.
Ireland’s other defeat was against Wales in Cardiff where they lost 19-13, two monumental howlers possibly having cost them the title and certainly having robbed them of a pot at another Triple Crown.
Hereafter March 12, 2011 will be remembered by Ireland rugby followers for a dreadful mistake by Scottish referee assistant Peter Allan who failed to spot that in flagrant violation of the game’s laws Matt Rees had used a replacement ball in taking a quick line-out throw to scrum-half Mike Phillips, who scored from that, this to say nothing of the two additional misdemeanours by the home hooker.
Irish skipper Brian O’Driscoll’s post-match reaction was: “Games hang in the balance on decisions. Everyone is human and wrong calls are made sometimes, but some are unforgivable.”
He is too diplomatic to say so but O’Driscoll may well have felt much the same about Paddy Wallace’s faux pas — again at the death — in choosing to come back inside rather than put Keith Earls away to finish a carefully and patiently crafted opening.
While, because of its nature, it is the touch-judge’s gaff that will be remembered by most, Wallace’s mistake was equally damaging to Ireland who butchered other chances, too, before and after Phillips’ illegal try.
Two defeats which could so easily have been victories.
What galls most at this stage is that Ireland have finished third in the 2011 Six Nations, despite having outscored each of the two in first and second spots by two and three tries to one respectively.
Ironically the Irish managed solitary touchdowns in Cardiff and in Rome against opponents who now have finished beneath them, the Italians once again bringing up the rear.
Against Scotland — the other side below them in the final table — Ireland won 21-18 at Murrayfield where they scored three tries, converting each. But as had been the case against France, they allowed the Scots to stay in touch from penalties.
That Sunday afternoon in Ediburgh, Ireland conceded even more of those than they had against the French — 13 and 10 respectively.
The Scots were on target with five off the tee plus a drop goal, as a result of which they finished a mere three points short of parity.
So beat Italy, lost to France, beat Scotland, lost to Wales, beat England, this on the back of November’s Guinness Series in which the sequence was lost to South Africa (23-21), beat Samoa (20-10), lost to New Zealand (38-18) and beat Argentina (29-9).
Clearly the stand-out result of those nine is the most recent one. Ditto the performance, for on Saturday against England Declan Kidney’s side offered irrefutable evidence of their ability to play 15-man football which combines grit and grace in the right proportions.
They have a scrum; on Saturday they certainly had a line-out; their pace, mobility, intensity and skill-levels were by far the best they have shown in two seasons, Ireland having raised their game significantly to deny the English.
The jury has gone home, but will reconvene in New Zealand in the autumn. And so begins the countdown to the World Cup.