A very good friend of mine (who happens to be a sporting fanatic) and, like most fair minded Irish folk, ecumenical in his range and scale of interest, suggested to me recently that for all the promising signs emanating from down under New Zealand 2011 hadn’t really taken off.
Not for a minute was he comparing it to the football equivalent but being a dyed in the wool Limerick man for sure he knows his sporting spuds.
Well if Auckland and that win over the Wallabies represented the turning point for this squad then Sunday’s tour de force before a sea of green in Dunedin (only Invercargill as a rugby destination and Stewart Island stand in the way of the South Pole) marked the point the country united with its Diaspora as one behind its rugby team.
Make no mistake there is now a serious momentum gathering force and yet one defeat in four days time and it’s all over bar the shouting.
Such is the nature of this unique four-yearly event. It has its faults (and we will return to them anon) but as a competition unlike any other it is unique. Comparisons have been drawn with the Heineken Cup but I fail to see the parallel.
Top your pool as one of the best four qualifiers in the Heineken and the reward is a home quarter final but with a gap of some two-and-a-half months between qualification and play-off.
The premier European competition, much like the Super 15, is of course played over the course of the domestic season in the respective hemispheres.
The Rugby World Cup is condensed into six weeks (with a substantial argument that it be reduced to less than that again) and in that respect is different given the intensity with which each game comes around.
That is where we are now at and what a place to be. If someone had offered a scrap between the best of the Six Nations en route to a World Cup Final rest assured all four — Ireland, Wales, England and France — would have grabbed it with both hands.
And let’s be clear here. We are vulnerable to losing out to any one of the other three but equally we know that on our day, playing to the maximum of our ability, we are well capable of getting the better of any one.
Our record against the French may be abysmal — one win in the last 10 attempts — but significantly it came in 2009 the last time we established momentum in a tournament of this nature.
And it is with the Six Nations I see a much closer and far more relevant analogy. It is almost an intangible, a sort of ‘X’ factor, but momentum is the key ingredient for which every coach at a tournament of this nature strives.
With momentum comes confidence underpinning a happy and hungry camp. I doubt we will ever be better placed in that key regard and yet aside from not getting the result they deserved against South Africa it is the Welsh who have hit this competition running every bit as impressively as ourselves.
Like it or lump it there is going to be one shattered Celtic squad come the final blast of Craig Joubert’s whistle in Wellington on Saturday. In ’09 De
clan Kidney emphasised the need for early momentum with the French first up. We all know what happened then and the success (first ever Six Nations Grand Slam) that followed.
Coincidentally it is Warren Gatland and Wales again standing between the nucleus of the same squad and a new chapter in our rugby history. Win and we will have gone further than any Irish World Cup squad has done before.
That Grand Slam decider in Cardiff was big but this is much bigger than that again. This is probably THE biggest game we have ever played and unquestionably the most important ever between the countries.
The prize and potential that comes with it is enormous. We will deal with the specifics later in the week. So as the show moves from South Island to North, from Dunedin to Wellington, it is with morale as good as it could possibly be and with injury concern restricted to the very much in-form Rory Best.
Best has become such a key component in what is now a highly respected Test-level front row. His loss will be felt and yet it is in a position in which thankfully we are top-heavy with alternatives.
Sean Cronin will slot in for Best with the much under-rated Damien Varley set to move up to the bench.
The hooking position aside and factoring in the nature of the opposition I expect Kidney to opt for the status quo. On a personal level I was delighted to see Jonny Sexton come on in the final quarter and continue command in the manner he did. Unlike New Zealand this Irish management on far more limited resources has left no stone unturned in covering most every injury or disciplinary eventuality.
Ronan O’Gara and Conor Murray will again be the half backs and rightly so. Rob Kearney may be short on game time but was convincing and assured in everything he did while Gordon D’Arcy the consummate confidence player was back to his momentum gaining best. As for Brian O’Driscoll, the guy is just a class apart.
What he did when supporting Tommy Bowe for the contest-clinching try he made look easy. But that is what great players do when that sixth rugby sense kicks in.
It was a day in which to a man all 22 delivered and while some might sneer at the relevance and put it down to his hamstring injury going into the game there is a growing maturity about Paul O’Connell’s current input I like.
In his and the team’s best interest he is sharing the load and not just to Donncha O’Callaghan but to others as well. Forget this superman nonsense. His ‘super powers’ are best utilised when shared.
Central to the much-improved level of performance has been that of the big players delivering. On the back of it each and every one is feeding into the other making responsibility not just something shared but something sought out with relish.
Here again I emphasise the cool and calm manner in which Murray has slotted in at scrum half.
It is extremely tough on fellow Limerick man Eoin Reddan but in the better good of the match day 22 it provides management with the facility to up the tempo at the base of scrum, ruck and maul when that need arises mid match.
In the wider picture with Dan Carter ruled out the overall landscape has changed dramatically with each and every one of the eight teams still standing fancying their chances.
It is still difficult to look beyond the Tri Nations three but for now that is almost an irrelevancy as all attention and our entire World Cup interest shifts to Wellington.
Expect the whole island of Ireland to be holding its collective breath.