Imagine, for a moment, if Brian O’Driscoll hadn’t captained Ireland to a Grand Slam in 2009? If the so-called Golden Generation which also featured Paul O’Connell and others hadn’t crossed that line? History might have turned out differently and so might have judged them differently too.
O’Driscoll had announced himself on the world stage almost a decade before with that hat-trick in Paris. The core of that 2009 side had been knocking on the door for the guts of a decade.
Ireland have five centurions in the history of Test rugby in O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Rory Best, O'Connell and John Hayes. All of them were involved in every match of the 2009 Six Nations. So too were another four of Ireland's 10 most capped players of all time - Peter Stringer, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Donnacha O'Callaghan.
That team also had Ireland's second most prolific try scorer in history, Tommy Bowe, as well as Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, Tomas O'Leary, Marcus Horan, the whirl of non-stop energy that was Jerry Flannery, the wrecking ball that was Stephen Ferris and David Wallace, an exceptionally dynamic athlete. Shoot, it also had Denis Leamy and Geordan Murphy on the bench.
Yet, while there were Triple Crowns, personal awards, accolades, Lions tours and a couple of Heineken Cups for the Munster contingent, at Test level there had been no cigars. Instead, there had been five runners-up finishes in the previous seven years of the Six Nations.
The baggage of history also weighed heavily. Ireland hadn’t won the Championship since 1985 and their sole Grand Slam was 61 years earlier.
In truth too, they’d also lost the love amongst at least some of the rugby and sporting public after the profoundly anti-climactic 2007 World Cup. The ensuing hangover had lingered into both the end of the Eddie O’Sullivan reign and the start of Declan Kidney’s tenure.
An undistinguished 33-10 defeat at Twickenham in O’Sullivan’s last game had condemned them to a fourth place finish in 2008 and in Kidney’s first autumnal campaign Ireland were kept easily at arm’s length by the All Blacks before a grim win over Argentina.
Ireland had lost five of their previous seven games going into their opening game against France, and this is back in the days when France were contenders. They’d won the title in 2007 and would win the Grand Slam in 2010.
They arrived at Croke Park with those old amigos Lionel Nallet and Sebastien Chabal in the secondrow, and a backrow containing the machine that was Thierry Dusautoir, then 27 and World Player of the Year in 2011, the brilliantly athletic Fulgence Ouedraogo and Imanol Harinordoquy. All were in their late 20s and at the peak of their powers, as were a Toulouse-studded backline. Ireland also hadn’t beaten France in seven attempts dating back to 2003.
Ambition and execution
Yet there truly was a sense of something different in the air from the moment Heaslip completed a sweeping try in the 33rd minute off a lineout deep inside Irish territory. It wasn’t just the ambition and the execution of the score, it was the manner Heaslip and his teammates celebrated.
He was submerged and it seemed as though in one bound they were free again.
The next two try scorers couldn’t have been hand-picked better. First O’Driscoll skinned Lionel Beauxis for a classical outside centre finish to prove his only dip in form (these things being entirely relative) was behind him.
Ireland’s all-time record try-scorer was still only 30 yet had gone into that Six Nations at odds of 33-1 to be the tournament’s leading try scorer. (He ultimately scored four to share the award with Riki Flutey).
Even so, the French also conjured superb tries by Harinordoquy and Maxime Medard, and the game was in the balance until D’Arcy - five minutes after coming on for his first Test since suffering a multiple fracture of his arm a year previously in Rome - sidestepped and muscled over. Again he was engulfed by teammates who appreciated the moment and were as joyous as D’Arcy himself.
The squad had benefitted from a particularly therapeutic pre-Christmas get-together at which Kearney famously asked aloud if the Munster players cared more about playing for their province than their country.
Kidney had also brought in Gert Smal as forwards coach and Les Kiss as defence coach, with Paul McNaughton as a strong manager, so it was going to take time for new methods to bed in.
Ireland rolled on to Rome for a routine win before returning to an expectant 82,000 sell-out at Croke Park for the visit of England. Ronan O’Gara had kicked almost everything until that day, when missing three, and after O’Driscoll had kicked a drop goal he was taken out late by serial offender Delon Armitage. As the captain was being treated, O’Connell and O’Gara opted to go to the corner. English shoulders sank and a few phases later O’Driscoll burrowed over.
Talk of a Grand Slam was unavoidable and so, predictably, the penultimate leg in Murrayfield was a taut affair which hinged on the recalled Peter Stringer breaking and pirouetting for Jamie Heaslip to cross the line with the ball in one hand and the other one raised triumphantly. “It was a nice try,” agreed Kidney before pausing and adding pointedly: “When he finished it.”
So to Cardiff.
The itinerary had kept the toughest until last, as Wales were the reigning Grand Slam champions, and also the ultimate white knuckle ride. For in the same way the near misses of the early noughties highlighted the need for a modicum of luck, so too did the Grand Slam of 2009 (and ditto the Slam of 2018 as well as the titles of 2014 and ‘15).
Not for the first time in modern times, the Welsh defence kept Ireland scoreless in the first half. Wayne Barnes seemed only to have eyes for Ireland that day and what seemed a ludicrously harsh penalty against Heaslip for what was at worst accidental offside enabled Stephen Jones to make it 6-0 at the interval with his second three-pointer.
Whereupon Ireland struck twice in quick succession soon after the restart. A searing break by Bowe off D’Arcy’s long pass earned the field position from which Ireland hammered at the Welsh line.
To Barnes’s credit he was one of the few people in the ground that saw O’Driscoll do another impersonation of a mole as he burrowed underneath Matthew Rees. It was only on replays that the Irish supporters cheered as it showed the ball brushing the Welsh line.
O’Gara converted, as he did again within two minutes, when his delicious cross-kick on a diagonal run was gathered at full tilt by Bowe to beat Gavin Henson - on at fullback for the injured Lee Byrne - and Shane Williams to the bouncing ball and race in under the posts.
By hook or by crook, at least 15,000 Irish fans (triple the official ticket allocation) could exhale, never mind cheer, but the 14-6 lead was trimmed to two points by a couple more Jones penalties.
In a campaign of many defining moments and fine margins, Mike Phillips looked sure to score with a barnstorming run through the middle of a lineout until tackled from behind by Stringer, although Jones edged Wales in front with a drop goal.
It looked like the dream had died. The camera panned to Jackie Kyle, the hero of the 1948 Grand Slam, on the big screen, which was almost too much to take.
But if this Irish team had anything it was nerve. They didn’t panic. Off the restart, Jones broke the habit of the game by kicking the ball out on the full, but after it had been passed back from outside the 22 by Phillips, thereby conceding the attacking throw. O’Connell’s take, the pack mauled, picked and jammed, and then Stringer fed Wallace to truck it up before O’Gara slipped back into the pocket and landed his iconic drop goal.
Even then Barnes pinged Paddy Wallace on half-way for side entry, although he could joke about wanting to inject some excitement at the civic reception the next day. Jones’ kick suddenly died as if a sniper hit the ball with a dart and Geordan Murphy gathered under the posts. While all around him were going nuts, Murphy calmly ran to the corner, touched the ball down and kicked it into the corner.
Also in the crowd was another Irish hero from 1948, the then 86-year-old Bill O’Hanlon, who was a winger on that Grand Slam team who had procured a ticket from his Welsh son-in-law, a London Welsh member.
“I am glad to have been here to witness this,” said O’Hanlon. “I have brought the match ball from our final game against Wales 61 years ago with me and it is more than time that we were joined in our place in history.”
By the end, as in Murrayfield but even more so in Cardiff, you could hardly breathe with the tension. Kiss, whose defense only conceded three tries, was on the money when he described the Ireland of 2009 as “a cardiac team”.
Ireland’s Cardiff coronation was watched by 945,000 people on RTÉ. An estimated crowd of 18,000 turned up for that civic reception the next day at the Mansion House.
Across the water especially, and to a lesser extent both at home and further afield, you always felt that Irish rugby was still sneered at a little. But not after that, and thereafter all changed. Leinster won their first of four Heineken Cups that same season and Ireland would add back-to-back titles for the first time since 1949 as well as the Grand Slam of 2018.
But that nerve-shedding day in Cardiff was the big breakthrough. At a stroke the careers of O’Driscoll and the golden generation had been fulfilled. Thereafter they could breathe a little easier.
Nearly men no more.