Rugby: Ireland need to summon the spirit of 2004 for Six Nations bid
With 10 years having passed since Ireland’s historic win over England at Twickenham, it’s easy to see how quickly the past can become neglected and forgotten.
In the wave of what’s current, it’s not unusual that past achievements blend into the ever-changing tapestry of statistics and figures that are pulled out on cue in the build-up to a big game or a salivating Test match, or that the hubbub surrounding injury news, conjecture and analysis suffocates some of the excitement that was once so palpable.
But that’s the nature of sport – the players’ eyes are always fixed on what’s coming over the hill; the next challenge.
After all, a new era in Irish rugby is fast approaching and the players are clamouring to be involved.
And while it might be difficult to fathom that a decade has elapsed since Brian O’ Driscoll and company ran out narrow, but deserved victors against England on home soil, it’s not hard to question whether or not Joe Schmidt’s squad really possess the mental tenacity to move on from what’s been a mixed series of results to date this year.
Because the doubts do exist, and they need to be expelled.
Recalling the day back in 2004 when Ireland travelled to Twickenham to do battle against the English, the main narrative ongoing at the time was that England would win, and they would win well. Overcoming Eddie O’ Sullivan’s side seemed almost a formality for Sir Clive Woodward’s charges.
But daringly, and in their capacity as definite underdogs, Ireland took the game to England and came out the other side smiling.
Their victory arrived just a few days before Ireland’s National Holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, and really lifted the spirit of the players on the pitch, the spectators in the stands, the fans watching at home and the scattered diaspora who were strewn about the world.
Make no mistake, it was a massive, confidence-boosting win, and it showed their ability and their drive to succeed in any condition – just as their gigantic and emotionally charged 43-19 Croke Park win over England back in 2007 did as well.
And yet more recently still, on November 24 last year in a Test match only a few months ago, this current Ireland team showed generous dollops of that same hunger and spirit once more as they pushed New Zealand all the way at the Aviva Stadium, losing by only two points after a late surge by the All Blacks to snatch victory at the death.
Admittedly, and indisputably, the old guard are beginning to make way. Yet, there is still time for many of the players still involved from that famous Six Nations triumph to conjure up yet more memorable performances and cherished triumphs. Nonetheless, it’s Ireland who have the tougher run-in and it’s they who will be fumbling around in the dark after their Twickenham slip-up.
For many, this their last hurrah – a final call to arms.
Of course, a glance at the standings shows that they’re in the driving seat, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t a position that always suits them – they’re generally more welcoming of the “outsiders” tag.
And with Ireland no doubt reeling from their disappointing showing against England away from home less than two weeks ago, it’s vital that they regroup and re-asses in time for their big clash against Jacques Brunel’s Italy at the weekend.
Having defeated both Scotland and Wales quite handsomely at home already this campaign, it’s hoped that the rub of the green will once again have an effect on Schmidt’s troops over their final two contests against Italy and France.
But it will take more than a sizeable portion of luck to help them over the line, and Schmidt has duly recognised this fact by finally drafting in the much-needed, in-form Simon Zebo to the squad. Bringing unrivalled pace and energy to the team, the Munster winger should inject the team with a new dimension to their game – something that could wrong-foot their opponents over the course of the next two weeks. Of course, including other top-quality performers such as Martin Moore and Paddy Jackson, despite not being included in the first team just yet, are other positive steps being made.
But if one element needs to remain constant and reliable, it’s Ireland’s fly-half Jonny Sexton.
Due to his incredible form for current club Racing Metro it came as somewhat of a surprise to see such a limp performance from him in the England encounter. At times, he was chasing shadows on the pitch. And while it would be unfair to say that he was overawed by the occasion, there was something very much off-kilter with his frame of mind that day.
And that’s one thing Schmidt and his back-room team will certainly need to be wary of again.
But, as they’ve so often done in the past, Ireland could use their vulnerability and their perceived weakness to their advantage, particularly as it will be either Wales or England who will push them right up to the wire for the title – and this is where sports psychologists earn their money.
Provided Paul O’ Connell can rouse his troops to prepare their appetites for the final couple of ties, the men in green could surprise us all with yet another odds-defying performance against France in Ireland’s final match of the tournament.
Of course, losing against England with a performance that seemed unpolished and lacking in a cutting edge will act as a huge blow to their self-esteem. And that’s where Italy come in.
By utilising the strength of their scrum and aggressive maul, Ireland can easily pick up a big win in Dublin on Saturday.
And what’s more, it would really instil the Irish XV with a generous amount of confidence going to Stade de France for the final fixture of the competition and would serve to wipe off some of the residual cobwebs of their recent slump.
After all is said and done, it’s imperative that they utilise the same spirit and self-belief in the face of adversity that they had in bucketloads in 2004 to put England to the sword to win the Triple Crown.
There is still ample opportunity and time for the team that’s placed 6th in the IRB World Rankings to mend what’s been broken and win the Six Nations for the first time since 2009.
But can the remaining payers from 2004 really make one last push for victory? And will the fresh legs drafted in make a big enough difference to the final outcome?
Hold on to your hunches, we’re in for a thrilling ride.