Jerry Flannery has been in some scrapes in his time. He’s seen some things. Battles, bruises, Donncha O’Callaghan’s underpants – he’s been face to face with them all. Saturday night at the Rugby World Cup in St Denis was the best of times but sweet mother of the divine Zombie, it was the worst of times too.
“I’m struggling,” he said on the RTÉ couch when it was all over. “I didn’t enjoy the second half. I was getting an anxiety attack watching that. There were just so many momentum swings – it was the ugliest second half you could have watched. But even still, I could not take my eyes off it. I feel absolutely exhausted.”
And sure how could anyone feel otherwise? When Andy Farrell told Clare McNamara afterwards that he’d be sending the players away for a few days and starting again on Thursday, the rest of us wondered could he maybe put in a word for us at our own work.
After all, the players only had to go through the physical wringer against the Springboks (although granted, that didn’t look like the most relaxing way to spend a Saturday night). But at least they could throw a dig or two and feel like they were doing something. We had a night of mental torture to try to work through, sitting at home, completely powerless. And us back to work on Monday? Come on, Andy. Ring the boss for us, will ya?
The tone had been set from the beginning on RTÉ when Stephen Ferris brought us inside his headspace in the 24 hours leading up to kick-off. “I went to bed last night thinking of the game,” he told Jackie Hurley. “I ended up dreaming about the game. When I woke up, I started thinking about the game.”
And as for what it was going to take, Jerry didn’t put a tooth in it.
“It’s a collision sport,” he said as Paul O’Connell stood at the door of the team dressingroom and tapped each player on the shoulder as they came out into the tunnel. “So if you’re not mentally getting your head ready that you’re going to have to leather someone as hard as you can when you get out on the field – and then do it over and over again – then you’re not getting on this team.”
On to the leathering, then. It didn’t start well. Four lineouts, all lost and soon enough Donal Lenihan was talking about the “tall timber” South Africa were able to get up in the air. Life wasn’t much better in the scrum, where Ireland were on the wrong side of the referee from the start.
We were 22 minutes in and Hugh Cahill was trying to look on the bright side. The lineout was a disaster, the scrums were a mess, there were mistakes all over the place. “But somehow Ireland are only 3-0 down,” Cahill said. It felt like he was reaching.
And then, out of the darkness, Bundee Aki made a jailbreak. He ran, at a guess, 400 metres down the centre of the pitch and got Ireland into the South Africa 22. By the time everyone had caught up with him, there were bodies skittling into each other everywhere you looked and hits going in that would take down buildings.
Mack Hansen eventually ran in Ireland’s try – and almost didn’t, apparently forgetting for a second that the ball needed to be touched down in the in-goal area. “Touch it down, Bundee!” roared Donal. And though he got the name wrong, everyone understood the confusion because it was, by now, that sort of night.
Into the second half. The Boks started emptying the bench. The intensity deepened, as if that was even possible. Both teams scraped and clawed for everything, pleading with the referee for each decision. “There’s a suggestion it came off one of Faf de Klerk’s hairs,” chuckled Donal at one lineout. And in fairness, there was no shortage of them.
The drama. Cheslin Kolbe’s try. Manie Libbok’s missed conversion. The Bomb Squad taking over the scrum wars. Ireland hanging in. Holding their own. A Sexton penalty. A Crowley penalty. Both, incredibly, coming at scrum-time. The final whistle, 13-8. Oblivion.
The one bum note of the night came right after the final whistle. RTÉ’s coverage had been pretty good but when they needed to let the moment breathe, they couldn’t help getting in the way. As the exhausted players shook hands on the pitch, you could hear the crowd launching into a clearly epic version of Zombie by The Cranberries.
Now, you may or may not like the song. You may or may not like how it has been co-opted by Ireland Rugby Inc for this World Cup. But it is, undeniably, A Thing That Is Happening. Jumping back to studio just as 40,000 Irish fans started to launch into the chorus was so self-defeating.
Within minutes, everybody was watching footage of it from inside the stadium on their social media feeds anyway. If you ever wanted a contrast between old media and new media, you’d struggle to find better.
“Sorry, I lost my voice,” croaked James Lowe when Clare got a hold of him afterwards. “I was screaming a bit out there.”
You and us both, J-Lowe. You and us both.