O'Driscoll's triple whammy delivers Ireland from the desert
Almost worth the wait. Keith Wood and co launched the mother of all Irish rugby parties in Paris yesterday, first by beating France 27-25, then by stopping off en route to the postmatch banquet in Kitty O'Sheas. Apres le deluge, to paraphrase Louis XIV, la victoire.
So France were understrength. So this was their fifth successive defeat in Stade de France. So what. To hear the Fields of Athenry echoing out of two corners of the state of the art, modern-day splendour that is the Stade de France, where the bulk of the 8,000-10,000 Irish supporters were congregated, was something special.
To hear and see them as the last people in the ground while the Irish players continued to milk the moment was even better.
As The Pogues and then U2 blasted out of the public address system, the thought occurred that Ireland found what they were looking for in Paris after all these years. In the process they climbed the highest mountain top.
To win by three tries to one said it all. "I was only born in 1972," said Wood afterwards, and indeed the bald wonder was just three days old when Tommy Kiernan, Willie John and co last stormed Paris. With that he thanked the Irish crowd for staying with them through the bad days, and heralded the parties about to begin here and back home.
In ending a losing run of 15 against the French, in recording a first win in Paris for 28 years, Ireland also enjoyed their first run of three successive wins in seven years, and first in the championship since 1982. How to put it into context in the immediate, euphoric post-match aftermath?
Even allowing for French injuries and both teams' flaws in a fluctuating contest, certainly it was the best Irish performance since the victory at Twickenham in '94. For the two grand old stagers, Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey, it even topped that. Given the historical baggage, and the manner by which the win was attained, it was possibly the most free-spirited Irish performance of all time.
To add varnish, in one game Ireland scored as many tries as they had done in the previous 20 years in this city. In the process, Brian O'Driscoll scored the first championship hat-trick by an Irishman since Seamus Byrne in Murrayfield 47 years ago. How to put his performance into context? Impossible.
But there were others, too. Clohessy and Galwey were singled out afterwards by Warren Gatland as "legends", and with this win they deserve their place alongside the Duggans, Slatterys, McBrides in the pantheon of Irish forwards.
Gatland pointed out that this was probably their last chance in Paris. "You never know," said Clohessy, with a mischievous glint in his eye, "I might be back."
This was vintage Clohessy, and Wood too. O'Kelly was bighearted and wonderfully athletic, Easterby and Dawson mightily effective, the tyros Stringer and O'Gara blossomed further, and Henderson and Hickie showed further evidence of their rejuvenation.
"There were 15 heroes out there and the subs," the reluctant hero himself O'Driscoll told the crowd.
Ireland kept playing their rugby, even more so as the game wore on when it was the French who huffed and puffed. It was France who resorted to drop goals and penalty shots at goal. The wonder of it, the biter being bit.
Before the game, Irish manager Donal Lenihan echoed the same thoughts he would convey to the assembled media afterwards. In an address to the players, he told them that he'd been coming to Paris for 18 years and most times they'd lost before their feet touched the airport tarmac. "This time I know this team is good enough to win."
The key moment for Ireland was the seven-man scrum while Paddy Johns was sin-binned just after Humphreys had made it 2217 with a 64th-minute penalty. From Gerald Merceron's long restart, Peter Stringer dropped the ball and Irish voices groaned. It looked fateful - and it was, but in the opposite way.
"Rugby is about how much you can depend on others around you," whispered Wood in the players' tunnel. "I had done a lot of talking during the game, so had Claw (Clohessy), and Gailimh (Galwey) and Foley, but at that point no one said anything. No one needed to. We knew how important it was. Axel (Foley) went into the second row and we gave it our best scrum. I always knew we could win, but I knew it even more then."
Most wondrous of all, with perfect symmetry given his unfortunate miss to win the game against France a year ago, David Humphreys replaced O'Gara and landed the winning penalty. "Yes, I did think about it," he beamed, "and I said a little prayer as well."
After the game a plainly shellshocked Bernard Laporte looked even more intense than usual.
"We were leading for 77 minutes and they were leading for only three minutes," he observed. Regardless of the accuracy of the assertion, c'est la vie, Bernard.
As for Gatland, he admitted this compared to anything he achieved with his native All Blacks. "To win in a stadium like this when most of the people in it are against you is what it's all about. It doesn't get any better than this."
Asked on television about his job prospects come the conclusion of his contract on June 1st, Gatland said that was a decision for others to talk about. Frankly, it seems a bit of a nonsense. With whatever degree of help from Eddie O'Sullivan - and clearly it has been significant - no amount of attempts to drive a wedge between them should succeed. They should stay in tandem for at least two years, and preferably four.
In the name of God stay.
"There were 15 heroes out there and the subs."
- Brian O'Driscoll, scorer of three tries
"To win in a stadium like this when most of the people in it are against you is what it's all about. It doesn't get better."
- Warren Gatland