Ireland's heroes claim just reward
March 25, 2009
Delight for Ireland as skipper Brian O'Driscoll lifts the Six Nations trophy at the Millennium Stadium © Getty Images
'To the victor the spoils' - never has the old saying been more appropriate. Whilst all the other nations will start their post mortems with 'if' Ireland can bask in the glory of a first Grand Slam for 61years.
If you win a Grand Slam you deserve it - it's as simple as that. Five consecutive wins may not sound like a momentous achievement but history tells us it is.
Sure there were some close calls. If England had not had two players sin-binned. If Stephen Jones had not miss-kicked into touch when the ball had been passed back from outside the 22 - if, if, if!
The other countries might dwell on what might have been but Ireland can forget the close calls - that is all part of the joy, Ireland's second Grand Slam is now indelibly in the record books. The manner of its winning will grow grander as the years go by and so it should.
I believe they would have won it two years ago if Brian O'Driscoll had been playing against France (he would never have allowed Vincent Clerc through for the winning try) but they had to settle for the Triple Crown so there is a sort of poetic justice for this very special group of players.
Huge credit must go to the new coach, Declan Kidney. He freshened up the squad by introducing some young blood but, perhaps more remarkably, he coaxed some of the old soldiers who, I for one thought were long past their sell-by date, to roll back the years.
He could have been excused for going with the entire Munster pack having won two Heineken Cup victories with them in the previous three seasons but resisted the temptation. Ulsterman, Stephen Ferris and the Leinster No.8, Jamie Heaslip, added explosive power and pace that transformed the back-row.
Paul O'Connell and David Wallace were immense but equally important were the contributions made by Marcus Horan and John Hayes. The front-row was potentially a weakness but, quite simply, there were no younger players up to the job and so he had no option but to go with them. They did him proud and at the age of 35, Hayes probably had his best season for Ireland.
Behind the scrum it was the perfect mix of youth and experience. Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Tomas O'Leary all played a major part but it was Ronan O'Gara and the captain, Brian O'Driscoll, who pulled the strings. Ireland have a very talented crop of players at the moment.
Ultimately, Wales were a disappointment. They started with a thoroughly professional demolition of Scotland but that was the high spot of the season. I still believe Gatland must take much of the blame for his selection policy against Italy. Wales had played poorly in the second-half against England and had been strangely hesitant against France.
What they needed was rip-roaring running game in Rome (similar to the one France produced last weekend) to restore confidence so that they went into that final match feeling they were back to their best. Instead they were full of self-doubt, a shadow of the side we Welshmen were hoping for after the performances against South Africa and Australia last November.
With a couple of minutes to go the Triple Crown and the Championship were within their grasp but they finished the season fourth - it was all they deserved for being so timid.
England are, at least going in the other direction. To finish with back-to-back wins at Twickenham has belatedly given the Martin Johnson era a launch pad but second place - albeit on points difference - flattered them.
It was something of a wasted season. We all know England have a huge pool of quality players - the key is to get them all singing off the same hymn sheet and only now does there appear to be some sort of pattern emerging.
It is comparatively simple to sort out your best combinations in a club environment but picking the right team is probably the most important job of the man in charge at international level and I believe the jury is still out when it comes to Martin Johnson on that one. Hopefully, he will spend the summer taking his coaching qualifications and will then feel able to take charge on the training field as well.
There is still no pattern in France. Last season, post the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Marc Lievremont had a clear-out making it clear to stalwarts such as Raphael Ibanez and Fabien Pelous that their era was over. He was unashamedly experimenting with new players but, after two Six Nations tournaments, the vultures are gathering. There seems no consistency to his thinking and his selections are bizarre and nobody in France knows where he is going - a wasted year for France too.
Which leaves Scotland and Italy marooned at the bottom for the second year running. That is worrying because it was completely predictable. Both countries have decent packs of forwards but neither has enough strength in its infrastructure to produce quality backs an there is nothing to suggest that is about to change.
Frank Hadden has done a good job in difficult circumstances - what he would give for the selection opportunities open to Johnson and Lievremont - and apart from his monumental blunder in picking Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half - Nick Mallett has been good for Italy. It's really a question of whether they can stay optimistic with the odds stacked so heavily against them.
All in all a poor Championship for every country bar Ireland but what a season for them.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com