Several glorious highs mixed with a few dire lows
We can be thankful that the year didn’t end on a poor note for Ireland, and therefore we can look forward to the Six Nations, writes GERRY THORNLEY,Rugby Correspondent
Coming hard on the heels of the four provinces losing in Europe on the same weekend for the first time in almost six years, there’s a palpable sense of disgruntlement out there over the events of 2012.
The bountiful Noughties assuredly set a high bar, but back in the non-productive ’90s, Irish rugby would have gobbled up a year such as this one.
Leinster’s crown may be slipping, but only last May they were the greatest Heineken Cup team of them all, after becoming only the second side to retain the Cup and the first to win it three times in a four-year span.
English and French clubs were left swallowing lemons.
It was also the first time that three Irish teams advanced to the knock-out stages, with Ulster storming Munster’s Thomond Park fortress for the sides’ first ever Heineken Cup meeting, before they were beaten by Leinster in an historic all-Irish final in Twickenham.
Leinster’s triumph was apparently the stand-out highlight for a mere four per cent of the Irish sporting audience, but that doesn’t make it any less of an achievement in what was, after all, a fairly vintage year for Irish sport.
The final may have lacked the drama of Leinster’s remarkable comeback win over Northampton 12 months previously, but it was nevertheless another defining celebration of a truly golden generation of Leinster players – especially backs.
Not all were there for all three triumphs, but a host of them will be legends of the province for years to come. Start to list them and you wouldn’t know where to stop. That it took them years of underachievement to reach the promised land only makes the success sweeter.
The real drama had come with that semi-final win over a fully loaded Clermont in Bordeaux, the merit of which has merely been underlined by what Clermont did in the Aviva earlier this month. Maintaining their push on two fronts had proved too much for Ulster, and the Heineken Cup final was a game too far for them.
Similarly the demands of four successive knock-out games ensured the Rabo Pro12 final was a game too far for Leinster – as the league semi-final had been for Munster.
The tired, anti-climactic end to the season for all the provinces was perhaps a warning for what was to come when Ireland toured New Zealand in June. The powers that be, the IRB and presumably with the IRFU’s compliance to some degree, decreed that Ireland would undertake its first-ever three-Test series in New Zealand at the end of a World Cup season which had begun on the first weekend of the previous August with the first of 14 Tests prior to the tour.
The absence of Brian O’Driscoll for the Six Nations had been compounded by the absence of Keith Earls for the opener at home to Wales, who themselves were missing several key men up front before a George North-inspired late win in Dublin kickstarted another Slam.
Ireland had to settle for a draw in Paris after threatening a first win there in a dozen years, but the ensuing loss of Paul O’Connell and a scrummaging nightmare made it a St Patrick’s Day to forget in Twickenham.