Our crew cuts a splendid dash

 

What a weekend. A new David Beckham hair-do and the unveiling of la belle epoque of Irish rugby. Yesterday morning, every broadsheet and tabloid newspaper in the land posted colour photo's of Becksy's number two shave. It was evident that the felling of the trademark peroxide locks was in some way an important moment, vaguely akin to the end of an era.

The disturbing aspect of the coverage lay in the fact that Becks somehow managed to fork out £300 for a crew cut. Most barbers would shear the entire Ireland rugby squad for that price. Not that they need any make-over; this team has never looked better.

Yesterday, they illustrated that sport is nothing if not topsy-turvy. The French capital, we were reminded, has long been the graveyard of Irish dreams. David Corkery, a player two seasons ago but an analyst yesterday, went to work on the metaphors.

"If there is a cauldron of hell in European rugby," he offered in lilting tones, "then it is Paris." A pretty grim place, then. Switch to an interview with Warren Gatland who visibly winced when asked if he felt Ireland would win. "I'm, eh , not too sure to be honest." Not exactly Churchillian in terms of spirit and deliverance but blazingly honest nonetheless.

The most striking thing about the build-up to the match is that no-one knew quite how to depict Ireland. It was, perhaps, easier when all our Saturdays were awash with woe and it was just a matter of sending another coach to the gallows. The dark and distant memory of that thrashing by England is still the touchstone, the puzzle being how we revolved from that shambolic ruin into the sophisticated purists, the new gods of the running game.

"Rob Henderson was watching that England game in a pub in London," exclaimed Tom McGurk at one point, to which the only adequate response would have been, "lucky him".

The conversation rattled inevitably towards the issue which has become the latest fundamental debate on Irish rugby. Where once we had the old perennial of whether to play Wardie or Ollie Campbell, the current dilemma is whether to credit Warren Gatland or Eddie O'Sullivan.

"The team has looked a lot different since Eddie O'Sullivan took Warren by the hand," opened Tom McGurk, clearly not bothered about pinning his own colours to the wall.

But nobody bit. Maybe the source of Ireland's renaissance was deemed irrelevant; the important thing was that it continued yesterday.

And yet for long stages of the game, any sort of upset looked remote. At half-time, due praise was given to Ireland's solidity and crispness on the ball and the general consensus was that the French had resorted to "a sneaky try" in taking the lead. It didn't look so much sneaky as similar to many Irish tries that have been scored over the years - a quick tap followed by a grateful plop over the line. But these days, we only go in for tries that involve glorious symmetry, blinding pace and impossible sleight of hand. Other words, Brian O'Driscoll tries.

With 57 minutes gone, France were 16-7 to the good and on the attack. "A score here would put them out of sight," warned Ralph Keyes. They duly nailed a penalty. In the bad years, it would have taken us an entire season to make up the deficit.

But we have, through whatever alchemist, become possessed with a verve and in two delightful, stunning bursts, the inglorious losing streak was forgotten. Ireland, so long the sick man of the Northern Hemisphere, were out-Frenching the French in their own patch of grass.

By the time David Humphrey's lined up for his late penalty, it was obvious that we were on the verge of a great moment in Irish sport. An overhead shot illustrated the distance between Humphreys and the target and it looked no more than, oh, a mile and a half. But he struck it with thunderous, venomous accuracy and nonchalantly trotted away before the ball had even split the up-rights.

"It's there" yelled George Hamilton in that tone of hoarse emotion he reserves for the true cigar days like yesterday. "Edge of seat stuff for the Irish but don't go drinking the stout just yet," advised a patently delighted Nigel Starmer-Smith on BBC2.

Inevitably, the French countered and ran and improvised over the last few agonising seconds and it was hard not to anticipate some terrible late surge, some cruel outrageous twist.

"This is almost too much to watch," yelled George, who by this stage had obviously decided to give way to his emotion and just scream at proceedings like the rest of us.

The end, like all great moments, arrived quietly and with little announcement. Peter Stringer boxkicked to touch, looked about him an suddenly started jigging with delight. And just like that, a whole generation of Irish sports fans knew what it was like to watch an Irish team win in Paris.

"This'll probably be my last time playing in Paris and I've waited a long time to beat them," said Peter Clohessy, looking about the stadium with intense, quiet happiness.

"Tis my first time playing here, it's great," reflected John Hayes. Old and new.

Hero of the hour though was Brian O'Driscoll. "All the world will be after this guy," purred Brent Pope as we watched him carried aloft, tricolour in his hands, ear-toear grin on his face. It will become one of those enduring images, a reference point, like Noel Mannion's gallop against the Welsh and Simon Geoghegan's burst in Twickenham. But fireworks were isolated occurrences in those days; now, we may only have to wait until the Welsh visit us.

A couple of hours before the wonderful turmoil in Paris, RTE brought us coverage of Sonia O'Sullivan's run in the short race that the World Cross Country Championships in the Algarve.

The surprise was that O'Sullivan had opted to take part at all, given the exhaustion she had suffered over Saturday's long course discipline.

From a distance, the racemeet looked a little bit like Mosney, except without the rain. Men and women with folders scurried busily about. The competitors laughed and talked - no doubt about the shocking price of crew cuts - and didn't seem to pushed about when the race might begin.

When they eventually started, it was at ferocious pace and from the outset, O'Sullivan struggled. Instead, the focus was once again on the superhuman efforts of Paula Radcliffe, the English girl who has made a career out of athletics despite having no neck muscles. Again yesterday, her head bobbed and lurched alarmingly from side to side as she soldiered on. It was a sight that should have carried a caution, given the early hour.

"Her head is bobbing up and down," noted Kathryn Davis nervously at one point. "Don't be put off by that. She says she doesn't suffer as much as it appears." Perhaps, but she's not the one who has to watch it."