Croke Park drama brings back painful memories
Huw Richards
February 11, 2007

To have been at Croke Park was inevitably to have been reminder of another Dublin day, a different ground and another last-gasp Irish defeat. Huw Richards reports

Rewind to 1991, and a cool-headed Ausralian team destined for World Cup victory extracting itself from the supreme crisis of that campaign, brought on by Gordon Hamilton's lead-snatching score for Ireland three minutes from time.

Ability to compare the two is qualified by not having been in Dublin then - the vantage point of the press room at Lille, awaiting the New Zealand-Canada quarter-final offered the sight of several dozen New Zealand journalists exultantly celebrating the apparently impending downfall of them from across the Tasman - but it is hard to believe that even that defeat was as shattering to Irish spirits as this one.

The World Cup quarter-final in 1991 would have had the qualities of a glorious fluke, an ambush at the expense of intrinsically superior opponents of the sort that Scott Gibbs would clinch for Wales at Wembley at the other end of the 1990s. There would have been nothing fluky if Ireland had beaten France at Croke Park.

They would have withstood the loss of two of their least dispensable players - the incomparable Brian O'Driscoll and the deeply underrated Peter Stringer - and a devastating start by the French, and still have surmounted a formidable barrier on their march towards championship and Grand Slam.
Which is not to say that the French were in any way unworthy.

They started brilliantly, defended well under pressure and took their chance with ruthlessly efficiency when it came. Ireland can feel they should have had a penalty try for the obstruction of Marcus Horan, but so might Wales last week (as a number of Irish critics, showing objectivity under stress, pointed out) when Chris Czekaj was pulled back by Simon Easterby.

Any sense of injustice relates not to an individual match, but to the growing likelihood that perhaps the most gifted group of players in Irish history may go through their careers without winning a title, let alone a Slam. The title remains a possibility, but Ireland now need France to slip up to have any chance.

Perhaps they would have won with O'Driscoll there. Had he been able to complement Gordon D'Arcy's ability to slip through the head of a needle and David Wallace's talent for stealing yards and space, Ireland's long periods of pressure might have been turned into tries.

Perhaps they would have won at Lansdowne Road. This is not to suggest that Ireland's first-quarter misery was down to nerves - France should be credited with a faultlessly impressive opening - but Croke Park's wideopen touchline spaces allowed France the series of quick lineouts that gave them
early attacking momentum and started the superb 70-yard movement that ended in Raphael Ibanez's try. At Lansdowne Road, those clearances from Ronan O'Gara would have been landing in the crowd.

Not least of Ireland's frustrations is that this may have been the one serious obstacle to the Grand Slam. England will come to Croke Park still cherishing ambitions in that direction themselves - and with the French to follow at Twickenham - but the manner of their victory over Italy hardly suggested that a 2003-style unstoppable force is under construction on the playing fields of Bath University.

England, and their fans, may be a little better for the reality check, while Italy should be credited for being strongest in the period when they've previously fallen apart - the final
quarter, when they scored a terrific try. Jonny continued to kick his goals, and did not get hurt. But there was little else to seriously worry Eddie O'Sullivan over the next 13 days.

Scotland at Murrayfield could be a different matter. They may still be fragile travellers, but at home the Scots have become a formidable proposition. If coaching is the art of getting the most from available resources, then Frank Hadden has some claim to be the best current practitioner in the Home Unions, wringing every drop of talent from a limited but highly committed group of players.

Wales's far greater talent was nullified. Wales have played worse, and not so very long ago. This was not in the class of the debacle last season at Lansdowne Road. But that could be blamed on injuries and the disruption surrounding Mike Ruddock's departure.

But there are no such excuses this time, merely a sense that the 2005 Grand Slam was a mirage and Ruddock might as well not have existed. Next up is France away - exactly what you wouldn't want, except that Wales have an oddly excellent record at the Stade de France. Now, if ever, is the time for history to triumph over logic.

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