Grand Slams are the holy grail, all the more so when a country has only won two of them in 120 years of trying. But championship titles aren’t to be sniffed out either, all the more so after just 12 of them outright in the same number of attempts, which as with the Slams is also less than England, France, Wales or Scotland. Never have Ireland come so agonisingly close as on the final day in 2007.
For decades, history and tradition decreed that the Triple Crown (effectively a Grand Slam against the other three Home Unions and dating back to the first tournament in 1883) was a bigger, more mystical achievement than winning the championship, even though a Triple Crown trophy was only introduced in 2006.
Prior to 1994, if teams finished level on points the title was shared, since when it has been decided on points’ difference, and not until 1993 was the Championship Trophy introduced (to be replaced last year). With each year, such is the difficulty in winning a Slam by beating all four opponents, winning the title has gained more credence.
"I think that's the biggest change in rugby," says Ronan O'Gara, outhalf that day in Rome. "The championship has become a bigger prize. The Grand Slam was the big thing. I don't even know if there was a trophy for winning the championship. Mind you, on the pitch and on the day (against Italy in 2007) it was a big thing."
Regrets, they'll have a few, but at least that Irish won't die wondering if they hadn't gone for it. They went into the first game of the final Saturday level with France on six points, who had beaten them in Croke Park courtesy of that last-ditch Vincent Clerc try, with a points' differential of +38 as against France's +42.
But they were also mindful France kicked off subsequently in the Stade de France against Scotland. Realistically, Ireland had to win big. Ireland had to have a go, and with the quick hands of the Munster halves, Peter Stringer and O'Gara, along with the Leinster quintet of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll in midfield and an outside three of Denis Hickie, Girvan Dempsey and Shane Horgan, Ireland had a go. The decision to do so followed the team meeting in the Westin Hotel the night before, and a relatively rare if typically sharp and coherent outline of the opportunity that was at stake by Hickie.
This would be his last Six Nations game, and thus a last chance for him and others to win a first Irish title since 1985.
“He spoke brilliantly,” recalls O’Gara. “Denis was always a very good speaker, because he didn’t speak too frequently, which I think makes a very good speaker, so when he spoke with authority and passion, people got in behind him. It was a great team meeting and more importantly the words were backed up, because there have been other times when they haven’t been backed up but this time it was fantastic that we went out and had a go. We showed that we could play rugby and we ripped them apart. It wasn’t about winning, it was about setting a target; the same as Wales this weekend,” says O’Gara.
“The priority was to win, but we were also very aware of the championship coming down to points’ difference,” recalls Hickie. “I’m sure we had spoken publicly about focusing on performance and winning the game, but privately we did focus on scoring as many points as we could from the start.”
This would also be a last shot at a title for Girvan Dempsey and Simon Easterby. "There's a natural imbalance in any side whereby some guys are younger and some guys are older, and there can be a natural assumption that you'll get another crack at it if you're a younger guy. Whereas there were a couple of older guys, the time is now, it's not next year. You won't necessarily be back next year, or necessarily be in a better position to win the championship next year."
“I think we were very focused on squeezing every last bit of what had been a very good season. To be in with a chance of winning a championship has to be on the back of a lot of hard work and a lot of good performances. So it was all to play for.”
Drawing parallels with today, Hickie adds: “Once the disappointment of the Grand Slam is put aside, there’s everything to play for this weekend. And that’s the kind of thinking we had in 2007.”
The Roman sun shone brilliantly and there were seas of green in the homely Stadio Olimpico, due to an error in ticketing allocation by the Italian Federation, and not forgetting the ’oul Celtic Tiger.
The bright blue skies, says Hickie, were the norm in Rome.
“We had played in Edinburgh the week before, and it was freezing; a cold, muddy Murrayfield. And seven days later we were playing in 22 degrees. It was a great day to be doing what we were trying to do.”
Although Ireland didn't convert chances early on, they set the tone with their approach, which Hickie believes was important. After O'Gara scored an early penalty, Ireland start going for the corner and unleashing their backs, but Ramiro Pez effectively cancels out tries by Girvan Dempsey and Simon Easterby with two penalties and two drop goals, to leave the score 13-12 to Ireland in first-half injury time, when a converted try by Gordon D'Arcy puts vital daylight between the teams.
“At half-time we knew that there was another 20 or 30 points in us,” says Hickie, “just because of the way the game was going and because of the way we were playing. And sometimes you just get a sense of that. We were feeling very fit, and that we had another couple of gears in us.“
More tries followed by from Dempsey, Shane Horgan, Hickie and O'Gara, and after one by Marco Bortolami, Hickie scored his second. That left Ireland 51-17 to the good deep into stoppage time, which would have set France a testing target to win by 31.
However, in pushing for another try, Ireland turned over the ball and Roland De Marigny scored a converted try for Italy with the last play of the game. France's target was down to a win by 24 points.
Hence, the abiding lesson from 2007 is that preventing the concession of a seven-pointer is as important as scoring one. “There’s a double whammy if the opposition score,” says O’Gara. “So 20-0 is better than 40-21.”
Eoin Reddan, an unused sub that day, is one of those who fervently believes the late try cost Ireland the 2007 title.
“I remember us conceding a try late on that cost us a trophy in the end that we shouldn’t have conceded. I think we should have beaten Italy by that extra bit and then we would have won the trophy.”
But even this pursuit of another try was due to kicking off before their main rivals, which is a huge factor, if also an inevitability, when he who pays the piper calls the tune. And why would the paymasters, ie tv, not want to have three separate games in their entirety?
It’s galling, but you do know the rules,” says Reddan of the luck of the draw. “You know what time the games are on and as a player you’re not trying to step back and judge the competition because it’s not really going to change. You do know what time the games are on. I suppose as a player we’re not really stepping back trying to judge the competition because it’s not really going to change, is it?”
Yet it’s hard to rein in ambition. After all that was the philosophy which engineered Ireland into a 51-17 lead. Had Ireland scored again, France would have had to win by 38.
Live by the sword, die by the sword. The feelings at the end in the Stadio Olimpico were, understandably, mixed. “We were disappointed at the way the game finished but very happy in how we performed,” says O’Gara.
“Initially we thought we might have done enough but then in the changing room we realised we put ourselves in danger of not doing enough,” says Hickie.
Back in the Westin some of the squad assembled with IRFU committee members, family, friends and supporters in the large front bar to watch events unfold in Stade de France. “Some of the guys stayed and watched it but I remember myself and Shaggy went down to the pool to do a recovery session. I couldn’t watch the (Scotland-France) game. I didn’t watch any of it, and neither did Shaggy. We didn’t want people watching us, watching the match.”
Nearing the end, France are leading by 39-19, when they go to the corner and backs join in as their maul drives over the Scottish line. The decision is referred to the TMO, who happens to be Simon McDowell of Ireland.
While it may well have been a legitimate try, no amount of television replays could show any sighting of the ball, much less Elvis Vermeulen supposedly grounding it. In one hell of an awkward position, McDowell awarded the try. Some Irish players have never forgiven him, while others never saw it.
“We couldn’t hear any of the roars,” says Hickie. “But before we found out we said: ‘betcha they’re going to do it.’ I think we knew that 24 points was do-able for them. Marcus (Horan) came down to the pool to say they (France) scored in the last minute, and that was it.”
At the time O’Gara maintained missing out on the Slam was the main thing, although in hindsight now accepts that it was a horrible way to miss out on the title as well. “What really sickens is that we had been within seconds of a Grand Slam when Clerc scored in the last minute at Croke Park.
“When we were sickened like that, the championship didn’t matter so much because the Grand Slam was such a bigger prize. When I kicked that penalty against France there was 90 seconds left and they had one restart left, a great kick from (Lionel) Beauxis. That was gut-wrenching, so after that it was about having a go.”
That they did. Having won in Cardiff before losing at home to France, Ireland thrashed England 43-13 and won 19-18 in Murrayfield before finishing with a flourish in Rome.
“It (the title) would have been nice because we hadn’t done it at that stage. We had been very consistent under Eddie at that stage but now the championship is the big thing. In 2007 it wasn’t as big a thing.”
Hence, the prize is bigger today, O’Gara reckons. “Given where Irish rugby is now, if they were achieve back-to-back championships, that’s something worth talking about. I think Ireland have to be aggressive. Scotland are fighting for their lives and be wary of a wounded animal. I think we have to concentrate about winning first. I don’t think we can take winning for granted this weekend. Scotland are trying to avoid losing five games in the championship. As bad as they’ve been at times, I don’t think that’s happened very often.”
“Not winning the Grand Slam was still sticking in our heads as well,” says Hickie. “I think as well because France had won the Championship and France had beaten us, maybe there was a sense of some sort of equity there.”
In hindsight though, winning the 2007 title now seems a bigger deal than it did at the time, all the more so if Ireland had actually won it. It’s almost forgotten. “You either win it or people do forget,” jokes Hickie ruefully.
Yep, 2007 was the one that got away alright.