Millennium memories to last a lifetime

 

Rugby Ireland's Grand Slam: ONE DAY LIKE THIS:THE GRAND Slam, the Six Nations, the Triple Crown, the Heineken Cup and the Magners League are all Irish-owned. It’s incredible really. Lock, stock and barrel, the whole shooting gallery, is now in the possession of Irish rugby. All completed by One Day Like This.

SATURDAY, MARCH 21st:

Wales v Ireland, Cardiff.

8.30am-10.30am: Breakfast, the Hilton Hotel

Throughout the intense, five-game, seven-weekend odyssey, Declan Kidney had been acutely conscious of the need to reduce training and afford players breaks from the camp, and come match day not to overload them. Last Saturday, less was more. The emphasis was on rest and eating.

Gordon D’Arcy roomed with Luke Fitzgerald, who was up and gone by 7.45am. D’Arcy tried to get back to sleep, couldn’t, so went down for breakfast and back to bed. “It was a very quiet morning. I like to go out for a cup of coffee on the morning of a game but it was too busy. So I had to grab a coffee and I went to the team room. Not the same.”

“I sleep in, I go over notes early and I always try to find a walk and a coffee away from the hotel,” says Les Kiss, the defensive coach.

“That was the first time my wife, Julie, was over, so we went for a coffee together.”

Gert Smal had been through a World Cup final. “Normally we’d already be planning for the next week’s match, but as this was the last game I took the opportunity to go to the gym and have a good work-out. I hadn’t been to the gym for quite some time and it was good to get rid of the nerves.”

As Pádraig Harrington had explained to the squad, the trick is to keep the right side of their brains, the feminine side, relatively uncluttered. Kidney had invited Harrington to meet the management and address the expanded Irish squad at their three-day get-together in the Marriott Hotel in Enfield in December.

Harrington spoke of his attitude towards mistakes and disappointments. Perhaps this contributed to the relatively relaxed atmosphere on match days, even on Grand Slam match day.

Frank O’Driscoll, Brian’s father, and his wife, Geraldine, had struck up a deep friendship with the parents of Dwayne Peel, Denis and Maria, and in return for them having stayed with the O’Driscolls for the Croke Park game last year, they were to return the favour last week.

“Very sadly, Dwayne’s sister lost a baby at 20 weeks the week of the game, so we decided to find a hotel,” says Frank, and they found the Novotel on Schooner Way, a 15-minute walk to the ground but away from the madding crowds. Not that it helped with escalating stress, all the more so with a 5.30pm kick-off.

In the Novotel, they met the Peels, Denis and Maria, and then met their own daughters Julie and Susan, along with Julie’s husband Tómas and their two children Katie (two-and-a-half) and Aoife (nine months), both clad in Irish jerseys.

12.30pm: Lunch, as such, or a snack.

Some, such as Flannery skipped it, whereas Stringer opted to eat some chicken and pasta there and then, knowing that he’d struggle to force it down later. “I could barely eat, and forced some pasta and potatoes,” admits D’Arcy. “Normally I’ve the constitution of an ox but you just go with the flow of the day.”

2.00pm

Declan Kidney conducted a brief meeting about the referee and the weather forecast, with some “power points” from video analyst Mervyn Murphy.

The squad then took their traditional walk for some fresh air across the road from the hotel for a game of Biscuit Ball. “Backs against forwards,” explains Flannery. “The two teams line up facing each other, side by side, with your hands behind your back. Only one guy can go for the ball. If another fella’s hand goes for it he’s knocked out.”

Smal has scrapped match-day line-out practice, content to just walk through what he calls their “contest systems” on the opposition line-out ball.

“There’s not much more you can do, and it’s important that you as a coaching staff also look composed and calm, otherwise it rubs off on the players if you look nervous.”

“The backs won convincingly yet again,” says Stringer. “It was nearly a whitewash over the whole campaign bar one which the forwards won.”

“No I don’t think so,” says Flannery. “I think the backs cheat a lot. It’s just poorly reffed.”

“The backs won fair and square,” laughs Kiss. “If there was any cheating they were all at it.”

2.30pm: Pre-match meal

D’Arcy remembers saying that thank God they’d got to this stage. “Over the previous 24 hours each hour seemed to take longer. The four hours until we got onto the bus seemed to drag by. I made a new play list, I packed my bag for the next day, which I normally never do.”

3.50pm

The squad assemble for a brief address by Kidney. “It’s quite a good feeling when the boys sit around in that circle, with Declan in amongst them,” says Kiss.

“The rest of the staff sit behind them.

“None of the players said anything. Declan picks his little themes, and to make sure that we didn’t leave anything for when we look in the mirror afterwards.”

4.00pm-4.05pm

The squad take the short coach journey to the ground, accompanied or “escorted” by two mounted policewomen. Flannery noted the contrast from a Heineken Cup final, when he could feed off the massed thousands of the Red Army and enjoy it.

On arrival at the ground, O’Driscoll’s parents met the O’Garas and others. “Joan O’Gara informed me that she felt really good and that we were going to win I never saw her so positive in my life,” says O’Driscoll snr.

“We missed the Horgans, the Dempseys and the O’Kellys. They had been with us for so long, and we felt there was a chunk missing. It was just a pity that they weren’t there for this one, but they were certainly there in spirit with us.”

4.55pm: The warm-up

Paul Pook, who has taken over from Mike McGurn as the squad’s fitness and conditioning coach, begins the warm-up, which has been condensed into 22 or 23 minutes with almost military precision.

Doing a ruck clear-out drill under Smal’s supervision, while Alan Gaffney takes the backs, Flannery hit Denis Leamy and suffered a “stinger” down his right side.

“I went over to the physio and tried to get the feeling back in my right shoulder. I couldn’t feel it a bit during the game but it was okay. In that intensity, you don’t have time to think about it.”

5.18pm

Back in the dressing-room for the countdown to kick-off, the coaches talk to the players individually and in groups, giving the last words of encouragement or trigger points.

The kick-off had been put back three minutes because of the lengthy treatment for Harry Ellis in the England-Scotland game. Paul McNaughton kept them up to date on the wall under the clock in the dressing-room, writing “three minute delay”.

The players bounced up and down in a circle.

Stringer and the subs put on their tops, forming a small tunnel to clap the starting XV out.

And the mantra ringing in their ears was O’Connell’s: “We are unbreakable. We are unbreakable.”

When they’re gone, the coaches are led by McNaughton to their box. “I think it was Guus Hiddink who said ‘Monday to Friday are coaches’ days but that diminishes as each day goes by, and Saturday is players’ day.’ And that’s exactly what it is,” says Kiss.

National anthems

“You grow up watching games when you’re young and you almost look forward to the other national anthems,” says Flannery. “I always love hearing the Welsh and Scottish national anthems. It’s not really intimidating. It almost reminds you of when you were younger.”

5.35pm: Kick-off

Ireland’s game plan centred around field position. The more minutes they played in the Welsh half the more it would ultimately tell, pushing the corners or putting up a high ball, trying to keep Wales under as much pressure as possible. “It was quite a simple thing the way Declan delivered it,” says Kiss.

D’Arcy’s first flat pass from O’Driscoll allowed him to step inside Tom Shanklin after Gavin Henson had broken the line and left a hole. “That settled me in,” says D’Arcy. We knew they couldn’t blitz if we got quick ball, so while it was kind of off the cuff it was also programmed as well.”

About four minutes in O’Leary’s pass teed up Flannery for a huge hit by Ian Gough. “I was pissed off because that’s a big lift for them.” Even so, in defence, Ireland were out-blitzing the blitzers. Gradually too, they were contesting well on the Welsh throw, with Paul O’Connell making telling inroads.

“Our contesting was good, especially when Donncha got that first ball,” says Smal, “and Paul picked up from that. The only thing was our hit (in the scrum) wasn’t good enough. That was one thing I spoke about at half-time, and the hit was a little bit better.”

“It’s attritional the way we play,” admits Flannery.

“We need to be a little more clinical in the way we execute our play, but that’s us evolving as a team. One of the things we talked about was making the pitch small for them. Never getting isolated and constantly talking in defence, constantly building trees with the two lads beside you.”

It was a good half everywhere except on the scoreboard.

D’Arcy went to the dressing-room “knowing that there was more in the tank even though I was giving everything that I had.” He would speak to Shanklin later that evening.

“He said they were really happy at half-time but we were really happy at half-time as well.”

Half-time: CYMRU 6 IWERDDON 0

Kidney spoke first, then Kiss, before the players broke up into units. Flannery had to go to the medical room for seven stitches above his left eye courtesy of what he felt was a no-arm hit by Ian Gough. “When I came back Gert was talking to the pack and was saying line-outs are going well but to get a little bit more aggressive in the scrum and get the hits through.”

“One of the defining things for me,” says Kiss, “was that we definitely knew that in each game we could lift the tempo going into the second-half.”

O’Driscoll had the final, telling say. Powerfully getting his message across, he said that they were where they wanted to be and he spoke of the complete belief he had in his teammates, in everything about the squad and that they would be the stronger team as the game went on.

The second-half

“It was a like a dream few minutes,” says Flannery of the quick-fire tries by O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe.

The O’Driscolls watched the dramatic events alongside Anne Bowe and the Kearneys, with the O’Garas in front of them and the D’Arcys, Horans, O’Connells and Wallaces in the general vicinity, although they were all a bit scattered around as usual.

“Only when it was announced,” did Frank O’Driscoll realise his son had scored the first try.

“The only good thing I have to say about the referee is that he was one of the few guys in the ground that spotted the try.”

Mervyn Murphy’s video analysis had revealed that Shane Williams liked to defend “up and in” off opposition scrums. Alan Gaffney and Mark Tainton hatched a plan, the players practised O’Gara’s “kick pass to Tommy Bowe” off a scrum assiduously, all of it driven and shaped cleverly by Kidney.

“They just shaped it beautifully with the players,” says Kiss.

Gradually though, Wales inched their way back with two Stephen Jones penalties to make it 14-12.

“They never looked like scoring a try really,” maintains D’Arcy, “but that’s the most penalties we’ve given away in the whole tournament. He did me twice for holding on and I just couldn’t believe it. I was amazed by some of his decisions.”

Flannery made way for Rory Best. “I tried to detach myself as much as I could, or else the next 13 minutes were going to drive me bananas.”

About 12 or 13 minutes from the end of the match time, Murphy informed Stringer that he was going on at the next play in the Welsh half. Not long after, Mike Phillips made his first break of the championship.

“I got back and, I think, got hold of one of his legs and tried to drag him down,” says Stringer. “He’s a big unit.”

Jones’ drop goal: 15-14 to Wales

“There’s that kind of sinking feeling in your stomach when you go behind and there’s only five minutes left,” says Stringer.

“But you banish the doubts in your head fairly quickly. The next target is to get hold of the ball and get back down there.”

“It’s grand, we’ve got five minutes here,” D’Arcy thought.

“We’ll get a drop goal in five minutes, easy. We’ll get two if we need it.”

Stringer kept barking, notably at a momentarily prone Marcus Horan.

“The forwards had worked really hard at keeping possession and I just felt with all eight forwards there we could work them infield closer to the posts with a few pick and goes – keep the forwards as tight as possible. Once we got close to the posts I looked up and saw Rory Best run in front of Rog.

“I had to hold it a second and then Paulie went in front of me. I saw the Welsh defence ready to push up and basically just hit Rog, and he did his thing again.”

Jones’ penalty

“I didn’t expect that last penalty,” admits Smal. “That took the wind out of me. It was a huge flip of emotions.”

“I was sick to my stomach,” admits Stringer.

D’Arcy was glad Gavin Henson wasn’t taking it, “but if you look at the video I’m behind the post with my head on the padding.

“I heard a cheer and thought ‘***, he’s got it’. But then it wasn’t a huge cheer. ‘That’s an Irish cheer.’ I heard Geordie and Rog calling for it. I saw Geordie catch it and I remember screaming at him to kick it out. I looked at the referee. Yessss.”

Up in the coaches box, “a lot of people said we looked calm but we were churning on the inside,” laughs Kiss. “I watched the boys jumping on the pitch for three to five seconds, then turned and we all suddenly enveloped into a group hug. A bit of man love. It doesn’t hurt, does it?” “That’s why you coach rugby, to have those sort of feelings,” says Smal.

Flannery ran straight to Horan. “Class,” says Flannery of the moment.

“You feel good for your mates who’ve worked so hard, and particularly where we came from. I don’t think we’ll fall in love with ourselves or anything. I don’t think that would be good enough to win a Grand Slam next year. It’s like Munster in 2006 but I think we’ve got to evolve again.”

“I ran to somebody, I can’t remember who,” says D’Arcy. “Then I stopped, put my hands in the air. I cried, then I laughed. The next 10 minutes are a bit of a blur. I remember sitting down on the floor with Heaslip, that’s about it.”

“I remember Drico and myself had a big hug,” says Stringer. “The next thing Tómas came off the bench and lifted me up. A good oul’ moment there.

“I remember looking at pockets of supporters going absolutely mental. Yeah, some pretty good moments. It was much more than I expected it to be, and as each day goes by you find another bit of history. I didn’t really expect to feel the way I do about it.”

Kiss and the other coaches came onto the pitch.

“It’s like an exclamation mark at the end, not a question mark or a full stop. It was a very, very satisfying achievement.”

To Frank O’Driscoll’s abiding delight, President Mary McAleese presented the Six Nations trophy to his son. “It said so much for the lady. I think she’s an incredible woman,” says O’Driscoll snr.

“You could see she loved her sport. She was the President, but yet she was like a mammy to the players. And she was in high glee.”

The trophy celebration was “cool”, as Flannery puts it, but the lap of honour allowed them to talk to each other and soak in what they’d achieved.

“I was looking to see if I could find my mum and dad in the crowd,” says Flannery, “because Paulie and Hayes were saying keep an eye out for your parents. I couldn’t see them but then Paulie pointed out one of my mates, Fionn, Gerry McLoughlin’s son, and my mum went home that night and my dad wouldn’t have been out that late, but I met her the next day at the homecoming, which was cool.”

As players and supporters alike danced and sang along to Rocking All Over the World, Kiss looked on and thought: “Jeez, this is special for Ireland. It will probably transcend a lot of things I’ve ever experienced.”

“Geordie apologised for spraying champagne in my face,” says the non-drinking Stringer. “I said don’t worry, that’s not a problem. I think he was genuinely apologising.”

“After all the jubilation I made my way down behind the goal as Brian was going around with the Cup,” says Frank O’Driscoll.

“When he was going by I gave him a shout. As soon as he saw me he leapt across the barrier and came over, and within half a second I was squashed against the barrier by all the people. Some fella got my head in a lock and knocked off my glasses. It was like something out of a pantomime.”

“But that was an incredible moment. I was full of pent-up emotion and all I wanted was to give him a hug. I’ll never forget the expression on his face. Pure joy.”

“We often say it before games, ‘just imagine sitting down in the dressing-room after the game and the feeling when you’ve won a game’,” says D’Arcy. “It’s just so satisfying knowing you’ve given everything you can and the fulfilment you can enjoy then. You imagine that feeling after the game. Yeah, the guys were absolutely knackered but sitting there with medals around their necks.”

Back in the dressing-room, some music was played, with D’Arcy putting on a squad favourite by attaching, a track by a Manchester Indie Rock band, Elbow, called One Day Like This, which probably never seemed more appropriate. “Well, anyway, it’s looking like a beautiful day So throw those curtains wide! One day like this a year’d see me right!”

“It’s got a bit of a love theme but it’s about a beautiful day basically,” says Kiss. “It’s not a rock song, it’s got this lovely theme and a few violins in it.” “It’s a nice mellow song, but with a little bit of rhythm in it as well,” says Smal.

Soon, Paddy ‘Rala’ O’Reilly is playing Christy Moore, who had again played a private gig for the squad on the Tuesday night prior to the Scottish game. Prince William visited the dressing-room briefly before having his photograph taken with a few of the management and players.

The players began leaving and alighting on the team coach, some stopping off for post-match interviews with written and radio media. Because of the post-match traffic, it would have been quicker to walk.

“But that was the first time they’d all been along together, without anyone else,” says Kiss, “and it was a special 15 minutes for people to sit down and have a chat, or walk up and down the bus and have a few jokes. Brilliant.”

The O’Driscoll clan had made their way to the Hilton Hotel. Inside, one of the hotel managers escorted them up the back stairs to the fifth floor to the Irish captain’s room.

“Brian had the trophy and we’d about 15 minutes with him on our own privately which was wonderful. No interruptions, and we were all photographed with the trophy, the whole lot of us, and Amy (Huberman) as well. It was fantastic and totally private.”

“We had a meal at about 11.30pm in the local Italian and left to go back bed at about 12.30am. We were just too exhausted.” Their daughter Julie and her family headed off to Fishguard for the 2.30am sailing back to Rosslare, which enabled them to attend the Lord Mayor’s reception in the Mansion House the next day.

The banquet ended at about 12.30am or 12.45am and rather than head into the night, most went upstairs to the team room in the hotel, had a few drinks and enjoyed each other’s company.

“You’re just trying to take in what you’ve done,” says Flannery, “and I was thinking I don’t believe Deccie has won the Grand Slam in his first year, especially coming from where we were. An unbelievable turnaround. How low confidence was within the squad, and yet he didn’t do any reinventing the wheel.”

“I went to bed at about 3am,” says Smal, “and I was probably one of the early ones.”

Sunday morning

Gert Smal wakes up in his room in the Cardiff Hilton Hotel.

“I can’t tell you how nice it is to wake up that next morning and know that it’s in the pocket. That’s a great feeling. Everything looks brighter, and better.”