Heartbreaking last-minute defeat to All Blacks ranks as the one that got away in 2013

Women’s Grand Slam and Leinster’s double helped make it by no means a dud year for Irish rugby

Leinster bade farewell to Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa with an entertainingly won double of the Rabo Pro12 and the Amlin Challenge Cup, thereby winning their sixth major trophy in six seasons and the 12th for Irish rugby in eight seasons. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Leinster bade farewell to Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa with an entertainingly won double of the Rabo Pro12 and the Amlin Challenge Cup, thereby winning their sixth major trophy in six seasons and the 12th for Irish rugby in eight seasons. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Tue, Dec 24, 2013, 11:33

In the minds of most Irish rugby supporters, 2013 would be instinctively deemed a non-vintage year. Certainly it was a year of missed opportunities and anti-climaxes, summed up by the Six Nations and heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand. The one that got away.

It was assuredly the match of the year, perhaps bettered globally only by New Zealand’s win over South Africa in Johannesburg. But imagine, for a moment, that Ireland had held on to beat these brilliant All Blacks for the first time in history. At a stroke, much of the pain associated with the Ireland team would have been erased. The feelgood factor would even have superseded the grave concerns as to the future of European club rugby. All would have been good with the world under Joe Schmidt.

Even so, for all its frustrations, it was by no means a dud year. Unlike 2007 and 2010, the only calendar years when Irish rugby was not adorned by at least one major trophy courtesy of its national team or provinces since 2005, there was success again, thanks to Leinster.

The province bade farewell to Schmidt, Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa with an entertainingly won double of the Rabo Pro12 and the Amlin Challenge Cup, thereby winning their sixth major trophy in six seasons and the 12th for Irish rugby in eight seasons.

Even that only counts Ireland’s Grand Slam of 2009 as one trophy, to augment five Heineken Cups (three by Leinster and two by Munster) along with five of the last eight league titles collectively. We have become a little spoilt.

There was also, of course, a historic Grand Slam by the Irish women’s rugby team – en route qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. A first victory in 18 attempts over England and only a second over France ensured their coronation in Milan was televised live. Irish women’s rugby had infiltrated the sporting landscape like never before.

In the sporting sentiment index, that Grand Slam ranked third in the greatest Irish sporting achievement of 2013, while they tied in the poll for team of the year with the Clare hurlers, if losing out to the latter last week in the RTÉ sports team of the year award.

Two moments from a non-vintage year for their male counterparts still finished third and fourth in the poll for the best/most memorable/iconic sporting moment of 2013, namely Rob Kearney’s try against the All Blacks and Simon Zebo’s flick with which he gathered the ball via his heel against Wales on February 2nd at the Millennium Stadium.

Zebo also scored that day from Brian O’Driscoll’s deft scoring pass in Ireland’s 30-22 win to kick off their Six Nations campaign, from where it is still hard to credit Wales would retain the championship with four wins, while Ireland would pick up only one more point – from a draw against France.

A savage injury list continued all the way to the fateful finale, when Ireland had Peter O’Mahony on the wing by half-time and the main compensation in seeing the era of Declan Kidney – Irish rugby’s most decorated coach – end so sadly was the IRFU securing the services of Schmidt. For some, that was the high point of the year, and it may have contributed to the weekly RDS choruses of “one more year” resulting in O’Driscoll signing on for another year.

In addition to Leinster’s consolation double there was Munster’s stirring and unexpected run to the Heineken Cup semi-finals – inspired in large part by the return of Paul O’Connell. Few occasions bettered their epic semi-final against Clermont on that electric April day in Montpellier. As Clermont pinned them to the ropes in the first-half and came within one more blow of knocking them out, Munster hung in there as only they can and in the second-half began to turn the screw.

The occasion was given additional poignancy by the probability of this being Ronan O’Gara’s last match unless they reached the final. In spite, or perhaps because, of his omission from the Six Nations’ finale, O’Gara masterminded the comeback. Recognising there was no way through Clermont, he turned them repeatedly with deft kicks into space. Denis Hurley scored off one trademark grubber, and Munster came within a bounce of the ball from Casey Laulala’s grubber of securing a final against Toulon in the Aviva.

The abiding Irish memory of the first Lions’ Test series win in 16 years appears to have been the omission of O’Driscoll from the third test. It was a rugby decision by Warren Gatland, albeit one perhaps founded on a degree of favouritism, and one you could argue with all night, but in the heel of the hunt O’Driscoll still played in the first Two tests and thus is a Test series winner as well as a four-time tourist. If he was English he’d be knighted.

And even if, like O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell (injured after the first Test) and Jamie Heaslip (also omitted for the third Test) didn’t see out the series, they too made valuable contributions as did Tommy Bowe, Seán O’Brien, Conor Murray, and Sexton, who started all three tests and came up with the play and then the try that clinched the series.

A bit like the year itself, that’s actually not too shabby.


gthornley@irishtimes.com

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