Several glorious highs mixed with a few dire lows

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 00:00

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.

After all that, ideally you’d want the Scottish rota whereby they caught a second-string Wallabies before heading to the Pacific Islands or, failing that, the Americas (where Ireland tour next year) or Argentina (where Ireland go in 2014). Or perhaps Australia.

Instead, though, Ireland’s rota will see them undertaking a three-Test tour of South Africa in 2016, at the end of the next World Cup season.

Best of luck with that one.

Admittedly, England and Wales remained far more competitive last June in undertaking three-Test series in South Africa and Australia even if, as the newly expanded Rugby Championship confirmed, the All Blacks continued to be in a league of their own.

Under Steve Hansen, the newly crowned world champions returned to the scene of their triumph in Eden Park to kickstart their year with some thrilling new blood in Aaron Smith, Julien Savea and co, along with the twin totems Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, to win the first Test 42-10.

Without Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls, on top of post-World Cup retirements, for Ireland to push them so close, and come within one pivotal scrum interpretation by Nigel Owens of recording an historic first win over New Zealand a week later in Christchurch, was a more than creditable effort.

But that was lost in the horrors of Hamilton, where Declan Kidney’s decision to haul Paddy Wallace off a Portuguese beach backfired and, knocked back by a couple of early tries, the team began chasing the game too soon.

That definitely was a game too far, but the scars lingered into the autumn, and possibly beyond.

The injury profile was even worse come November, but even so the disappointment in not pushing home a 12-3 interval lead against South Africa was acute.

But all month we were told of the positive energy and training in the camp, after an Ulster-infused jaunt against the Fijians, Ireland thrillingly ended a five-match losing sequence by putting Argentina to the sword like never before.

Craig Gilroy proved an inspired pick, scoring the first of Ireland’s seven tries in a virtuoso debut. He was the ninth debutant and 39th player used by Ireland in their 10 Test matches – a figure that rises to 45 including the Fijian game.

In what was a decidedly fluctuating, up-and-down year, unlike the World Cup, the Six Nations and the tour, at least things didn’t end on a bum note, and Ireland will take something of a feel-good factor into the Six Nations.

Best and worst...

Best moment of the Year

Leinster winning the Heineken Cup in an all-Irish final at Twickenham.

A golden generation ensured the Harp had three stars for company, and the English and French clubs were left swallowing bitter lemons.

Worst moment of the Year

Hard to look beyond the Hamilton Horror.

Hard to think about it too.

Try of the Year

Craig Gilroy, Ulster v Munster, HC quarter-final, Thomond Park.

After Andrew Trimble trucks it up, good flat passing by Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Stefan Terblanche gives Gilroy a run outside Denis Hurley, before stepping inside Felix Jones and Simon Zebo to take a couple of covering tackles to score.

It was a foretaste of more to come too.