The Match: Ireland 30 France 21, 7 February 2009
What it Defined: Ireland’s Grand Slam and unbeaten calendar year in 2009
The State of Play
At the end of 2008, Irish rugby is doing everything it can to move on from their disastrous World Cup. Eddie O’Sullivan resigns in the aftermath of the following Six Nations, and is replaced by another Corkman, Declan Kidney. That’s about all they have in common, though. Where O’Sullivan is technical, dictatorial and a control freak, Kidney is a man manager, an enabler and a delegator. At some expense, he is backed by a world class coaching team: Alan Gaffney, Les Kiss and Gert Smal.
After a summer tour led by interim coach Michael Bradley, on which Ireland play reasonably well, the full scale of Kidney’s task is laid bare in the autumn internationals. Ireland beat Canada in Thomond Park before the main course: New Zealand and Argentina in Croke Park. The atmosphere before the New Zealand game is white-hot, and there’s a feeling that Ireland can do something. After all, both Leinster and Munster are in good form in the Heineken Cup and it’s a good time to face New Zealand. But they never fire a bolt, and New Zealand barely need to get out of third gear to win 22-3. Ireland’s feeble performance is shown up by Munster’s reserves, who bring a second string New Zealand team to the brink in thrilling style the following Wednesday. Ronan O’Gara, watching in the stands, comments that Ireland ‘need to buy into the jersey a bit more’.
The Argentina match is an aberration. It happens to be Ms Ovale’s first time going to an Irish international, and so awful is the game, it is a wonder she has made it back for another since. Argentina lose Hernandez in the warm up, and appear to lose interest in the scoreboard, and choose instead to turn the game into a brawl. The match is played almost entirely between the two 10-metre lines, virtually every ruck is punctuated by fisticuffs, but Ireland grind out a 17-3 victory, eventually conjuring up a decent attack as Tommy Bowe gathers a cross-field kick to score a try. The victory is significant in one sense: Ireland have maintained their second-seeding for the World Cup draw, but other than that there is little to take from the series.
Kidney and his team are taken aback at the lack of confidence in the Irish players, and at the poor atmosphere within the group. Some weeks later, players and management convene at Carton House to try to resolve some issues before the Six Nations. Here, Rob Kearney makes his now famous, possibly overstated, but probably very significant ‘Munster look more united than Ireland’ comments. While it’s hard to gauge just how big a deal it was, the team do appear fractious and cranky with one another on the pitch, and it’s not hard to imagine that factions along a provincial line may have developed within the squad. With Kearney’s comments, it appears the elephant is finally removed from the room and the team can move forward.
A new tactical approach is also devised. By now, many of the Munster forwards (who make up most of the pack) are frustrated with Eddie’s wide-wide gameplan, and would prefer a more attritional approach. Deccie hands the forwards a licence to take on the opposition pack, and resolves to play a more territorial game. He wants the players to play it as they see it, but to try and ensure each phase is played further up the field than the last one. It’s essentially the formula with which he had so much success with Munster. The players leave camp with a sense of a lot of baggage having been removed, and a greater clarity around the gameplan.
The good news is that the Six Nations is in its ‘odd year’, where Ireland face France and England at home. And the schedulers have pitted Ireland against France in the first round.
While some are convinced that the new broom needs to sweep out the vast majority of Eddie’s Untouchables, Kidney decides to persevere, recognising that these great players have something left in the tank – he tinkers with some of the lineup, but it’s largely the same faces. Flannery starts at hooker, and in the back row, Ferris, having impressed in the autumn is given the No.6 jumper. Paddy Wallace is a surprise pick at 12, albeit as a favourite of Deccie’s from the underage days, and Gordon D’arcy, recently back from a long spell out with a broken arm that wouldn’t reset properly, is able to take a place on the bench. For France, the selection is typically Lievremont. He picks an exceptionally athletic backrow of Ouedraogo, Dusatoir and Harinordoquy, but puts Chabal in the second row and plays Sebastian Tillous-Borde at scrum half, while Parra kicks his heels on the bench.
The 2008-09 season is blighted by the ELVs, but this is one of the few games which rises above the torpor. In short, it’s a cracker. Ireland lose a try early on as Chabal smashes aside the last line of defence, but they rally. After great work by Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe up the left touchline, Paul O’Connell pops a pass into Jamie Heaslip. The Leinster No.8 gallops into the space, before bamboozling Clement Poitrenaud with a sidestep to get over the line. It’s a classic try from a player who is becoming central under the new coaching regime. Ireland lead 13-10 at half time – the general feeling in the stands is that they’re playing their best in some time, but kicking too much to France’s livewire back three.
The second half performance is outstanding. Off a set piece, Brian O’Driscoll breaks the line and wrong-foots Malzieu to get in under the posts. Minutes later, Gordon D’arcy, off the bench for the bloodied Wallace, wriggles over the line from five metres out. In an iconic image, he is mobbed by his team-mates, thrilled for him after such a long and difficult spell out.
The other memorable image, for WoC anyway, is that of Paul O’Connell hauling Jamie Heaslip – by now the man of the match – up from the ruck, slapping his back and grinning widely, after Jamie has won the match-winning penalty. We are not writing with hindsight when we say that the sight of the Munster captain commending the Leinster tyro so vigorously really made us sit up and take notice. Maybe there was a new hunger, a greater unity of purpose to this Irish team…
The rest we know. Ireland went on to win the Grand Slam, the nation’s first for 60 years. There’s little need to go back over the details of Bowe’s try, ROG’s drop goal, Paddy Wallace’s hands in the ruck, Stephen Jones’ mercifully just-short penalty again – and we’ll skip the bit where Palla got so nervous before the game that he would let out a little yelp every time the camera cut to the empty Millenium stadium, couldn’t watch England v Scotland and instead had to go and play tennis for an hour to try and take his mind off the match. It’s worth recalling a few details though.
For a start, Ireland never played as well, or as freely, again in the series as they did against France. The stats showed that they passed less and kicked more than any other team. Rob Kearney had looked electric counter-attacking in the previous summer tour, but with the game now dominated by defence and referees allowing the tackler huge leeway around the ruck, he was reduced to catching and kicking. Tomas O’Leary’s game was tailor-made to the ELV-based gameplan. With quick ruck-ball in such short supply it hardly mattered how quickly you passed to the fly-half, who was only going to kick it anyway, so his passing limitations were scarcely exposed, while his physicality around the ruck effectively gave Ireland an extra flanker. After the France game it was a case of shutting up shop and trying to grind out wins. Line breaks were in short supply, Fitzgerald barely touched the football and BOD’s ability from one metre out was Ireland’s best scoring threat.
Kidney’s management was astute from first to last. While we’ve grown to be frustrated by his gnomic utterances over the last three years, when media expectation is building and all anyone wants to do is get the coach to talk up his grand slam hopes in front of a microphone, he’s the man to manage it. One game at a time, not even thinking about it, sure isn’t this why we got into the game – he gave the media absolutely nothing. When Warren Gatland cracked and said the Welsh disliked the Irish players more than any other nation’s, it appeared that Kidney had gained a slight advantage over his opposite number.
His greatest stroke was changing four players for the Scotland game. Probably mindful that some players might be looking a week ahead to the Wales match, he shook up his team for the first time in the championship, dropping four players, some of whom were among his best. Crucially though, he changed only where he knew he had quality reserves, so the team would be losing little. Heaslip, O’Leary, Wallace and Flannery made way for Leamy, Stringer, D’arcy and Best. Heaslip, in particular, was having an outstanding championship, and was not happy about it. As it happened, Leamy got injured early on and Heaslip played most of the game, scoring the winning try, set up by a break from Stringer, who passed with metronomic accuracy. Three of the four – all bar Wallace – were reinstated for the Wales game. It was terrific, proactive management and had the desired effect.
It must also be said that Ireland were lucky. They were lucky that France were having a season of experimentation. Lucky that Danny Care lost his head and that by the time England got themselves to within a point it was too late in the game. Lucky not to be further behind at half time against Scotland. Lucky that Stephen Jones missed a penalty he would expect to score, and lucky that Gavin Henson, traditionally Wales’ kicker for long distance, didn’t insist on kicking it. Lucky that Wales miscalculated and put the ball out on the full so Ireland could set up the winning score. Most of all, though, they were lucky with injuries. While Deccie deserved praise for making the four changes before the Scotland game, it must be recognised that doing so was a luxury. At no time since that game has he felt he could make such changes, and now only really changes players when injury strikes. Effectively, Kidney could put out his preferred XV in every game. These days, to be able to do that five times in a row, is unheard of.
The contrasting legacy of Ireland’s two most recent coaches effectively boils down to a missed restart against France and a late missed penalty by Wales. Fine margins.
Ireland and Kidney’s purple patch didn’t end with beating Wales. They went the calendar year unbeaten, signing off with a distinguished autumn series in which they drew, somewhat fortuitously, with Australia and beat South Africa, piloted by a new fly-half, Jonny Sexton, from a newly resurgent Leinster. It was among the best performances of Kidney’s tenure. Everything was rosy in the garden. It had been a remarkable season. But the game was going to change. The IRB, frustrated with the hideous kick-and-chase monster the game had become, were about to change the “interpretation” of the breakdown law, requiring tacklers to clearly disengage from the tackled player before competing for the ball. It was enough to hand the initiative back to the attacking team. Rugby would become a phase game again, and Ireland would have to adapt or be left behind.