Grand Slam encore? It’ll be tough but Ireland can do it
The shot of Jack Kyle embracing Brian O’Driscoll on the edge of the Millennium Stadium pitch following Ireland’s Grand Slam-completing win over Wales in Cardiff last April is one of those iconic sports photographs.
For sports fans, it’s up there with Cassius Clay on his backside courtesy of Henry Cooper’s 1963 Wembley Stadium left hook, Geoff Hurst’s net-bulging, hat-trick completing 1966 World Cup clincher at the same venue or the grinning Usain Bolt’s chest-beating gesture as he cruised to record-shattering 100 metres gold in the 2008 Beijing Olmpics.
Dr Jack, the best-remembered member of Ireland’s 1948 Grand Slam side, celebrated his 84th birthday on January 10. After a 61-year wait, he was delighted — and relieved — to see the O’Driscoll-skippered Irish side finally achieve a second clean sweep.
Now comes O’Driscoll’s men’s task of defending it. As champions who swept all before them in 2008/09, Ireland are there to be shot down. Everybody wants their scalp; all of the rivals will be itching to lower their colours.
“It won’t be easy for them to repeat what they did last year, but they could do it,” the old maestro feels.
“They have a good side and they have guys who have played together, which is important, too.”
The camaraderie, the belief, the
unity and the players’ faith in one another built as a result of what they have been through together is very significant. And continuity is vital.
He also highlights the difference between winning and losing, stressing that it can hinge on a single moment of magic or sloppiness.
He cites February 2007 as being a case in point. Toulouse wing Vincent Clerc got through for a last-minute try which gave the French a 20-17 smash and grab victory in what was Ireland’s first match at Croke Park as the rebuilding of Lansdowne Road got underway.
The hosts had the game in the bag. Or so they thought. The French thought otherwise and Irish defeat was snatched cruelly from the jaws of victory.
On such moments are big matches decided.
“The game against France in Paris probably will be the toughest of the lot this year,” he reckons.
That said, he believes that Ireland boast a very strong line-up, with war-hardened forwards and quality backs.
“When I was playing people used to say that you could win a game with good forwards and reasonable backs,” he recalls.
“You could debate that, I suppose. But if you haven’t got a good set of forwards you aren’t going to win.
“They will lay the groundwork in winning ball for the three-quarters.
“So I think Ireland have a very good side; I really do.
“I suppose the question you have to ask yourself with regard to last season is did that side deserve to win the Grand Slam?
“Okay, you can say that in the end it came down to Ronan |O’Gara’s drop goal and Wales then missing a penalty which would have won the game for them. That was all there was between the sides.
“But, on the other hand, you always felt that Ireland deserved to win that game.
“So in going back and asking myself if I thought they deserved that Grand Slam, I would have to say yes, I believe they did.
“This is a good side so there are possibilities here. But it will be difficult. It’s a huge challenge in trying to repeat what they did last season.
“It is not an easy thing to win a Grand Slam and it certainly won’t be easy to retain it.
“But they could do it because of the fact that they have very good three-quarters and they have good forwards.
“They are in a winning groove. Their confidence is there. All of those things are important.”
He knows O’Driscoll, of whom he is such an evident admirer, will be a target player for opposing sides.
He cites the Irish skipper as “a marked man”. That was something he himself faced as a player, of course.
“The approach of opponents in trying to deal with O’Driscoll will be not to let him get started,” he warns. “They will want to make sure that if he has the ball he’s tackled before he gets running with it.
“And nowadays, with videos and so on, you have all of this business of working out how to combat an opposing side so you can beat them. You have all sorts of analysts so they’re all very well informed and prepared. We’d none of that when we were playing, of course
“We all knew players like Cliff Morgan or Ken Jones were very good, but we didn’t study them.”
There is no hint of regret in his voice as he says that.
His conclusion regarding the possibility of back-to-back Grand Slams?
“It will be hard for them to keep up the very high standards they set themselves last year. And that game in Paris is the key one,” he says.