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Tony Ward: Grand Slam win is a legacy Ireland cannot squander

Warren Gatland was right after all, Ireland did spend an hour and whatever larking about in the dressing room. He was just a week out in his revelation.

Indeed listening to Billy Stickland – the official fly on the wall photographer – outline what really transpires in the post-match professional dressing-room, and specifically that in Cardiff on Saturday, I suspect the ego-mad Kiwi may have got this one wrong too.

But on the back of this wonderful weekend for Irish sport there is no need for recrimination. Declan Kidney got it in one when he highlighted honesty, hard work and trust.

They are inter-related and embodied in the very being of this man. Despite two outstanding Heineken Cup successes with Munster and an Ireland under-19 World Cup (which Brian |O’Driscoll, Paddy Wallace and Donncha O’Callaghan shared) guiding Ireland to this Grand Slam is without doubt his greatest achievement to date.

It will be hard to top but have little doubt he will. Many superlatives are flowing his team’s way and by extension so many more being deflected on him. He is clearly uncomfortable in that light and in a way it reveals to me why the proud Cork man is so special. Again I return to that trait called humility. If ever a team reflects the main characteristics of its coach this is it.

With Kidney the coach what you see is not necessarily what you get. He can be guarded and cautious but the three key traits he identifies form the common bond

within this squad. I don’t mean it to sound overly simplistic but it is why we are what we are and where we are today top of the pile Triple Crown, Grand Slam and Six Nations Champions of Europe.

His graciousness in acknowledging the input of others, not least that of Eddie O’Sullivan (pictured right) and Niall O’Donovan, was typical of the man. Given the euphoria of the occasion and emotion of the moment to do so in the immediate aftermath of the biggest win in Irish rugby history was generous in the extreme.

It leaves the game in a pretty healthy state going forward and with a half decent World Cup draw (certainly when compared to ’07) progress for the first time beyond the quarter-final must be a realistically achievable aspiration for 2011. Let us remind ourselves (lest we might forget) that right now the Magners League, Heineken Cup and Six Nations trophies rest within these shores.

Both Munster and Leinster are

heavily involved in the race for Celtic and European trophy retention. It will be a big ask of Tony McGahan and Michael Cheika to get so many players down from the weekend high and re-focused on domestic and European tasks in hand.

But with O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell set to lead the re-invigoration in either camp, I have little doubt it will be business as usual come bread and butter time followed by Europe. Can you imagine the demand for tickets should Leinster and Munster make it through to a second semi-final showdown? Despite Harlequins and the Ospreys standing in the way don’t rule out a Croke Park return for the majority of our Grand Slam winning heroes before this momentous season is out.

I think it an appropriate time to mention too that, just as all is not rotten with the game when the national fifteen comes up short, not everything is rosy in the garden of Irish rugby now. The club game needs all the support it can get.

There is a new generation and much wider fan base developing yet most have never been inside a club ground. Yet were it not for clubs and schools we would have no Ronan O’Gara, no O’Driscoll, no O’Connell or no Kidney either.

As one who supports to the full the development of youth and under-age rugby in the clubs and yet continues actively involved in coaching and player development within the schools I echo Kidney’s sentiments regarding the extraordinary coaching and developmental work being carried out

week in week out by devoted voluntary mentors the length and breath of the land.

Witness my own local club Seapoint and the extraordinary spectacle every weekend of hundreds of boys being actively encouraged and coached in the rudiments of the game by equally enthusiastic adults be they former players or parents.

You cannot, as Kidney knows too well, put a value on that input. The Kilbogget experience is common place throughout the island almost every weekend throughout the rugby playing season.

So please when next we fail to lift the Grand Slam or Six Nations may we be spared the mischievous media bleatings of a few when questioning competition over skill development at under age. For the record they go comfortably hand-in-hand. And if one man epitomises that commitment to rugby at all levels in preparing for the next generation it is current IRFU and proud Bective man John Lyons. How appropriate and fitting that this extraordinary achievement at the highest level should be recorded under his watch.

As for the players? Well apart from returning to the daily grind in Belfast, Cork, Limerick and Dublin I think almost every one, and a few more in reserve, can harbour thoughts and aspirations of a possible trip to South Africa as a Lion. It is the highest recognition the game can offer and never has the case for an Irish majority been as strong.

It is an issue to which we will return in the coming days but safe in the knowledge that Ian McGeechan, unlike Clive Woodward in 2005, will base his selection on current form and not on daring deeds from times past. Before that of course he will have to address the issue of captaincy and here surely, despite Ryan Jones’ apparent claims, it will be a banker that an Irish leader will be appointed to follow in the footsteps of Tommy Smyth, Sammy Walker, Karl Mullen, Robin Thompson, Ronnie Dawson, Tom Kiernan, Willie John McBride (pictured left), Ciaran Fitzgerald and, latterly, Brian O’Driscoll.

As one who advocated a change in national captaincy (and still do for all the right reasons) I salute our greatest ever player for what he has achieved and the outstanding leadership he has supplied over the past six remarkable weeks. Despite attempts at portraying him in a less favourable light, he is the consummate selfless role model for every young and aspiring rugby player out there. I doubt we will see his like again. He is a credit to himself, to his family and to his country on the world stage.

So whether it is O’Driscoll or O’Connell - and it will surely be one - I don’t mind but I would preface that by saying that what goes around comes around in this life. Could there be a sweeter way for this outstanding rugby player to wrap up his Lions career than by replacing the agony of New Zealand and all it entailed with South Africa and a successful, injury-free tour as captain. So forgive me if I put the call for O’Connell on hold and wish |O’Driscoll a second captain’s arm band (following the footsteps of Martin Johnson) an incredible achievement hard earned.

When you’ve just led your team to a clean Six Nations sweep, crossed for tries in four of the five matches, been the model of consistency and humility throughout and finished deservedly as the tournament’s outstanding player then I think the right to a second tilt at Lions has been pretty well earned.

Over to you Geech.

Belfast Telegraph


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