Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick of tries in Paris will more than likely always be seen as a watershed moment for Irish rugby. For very obvious reasons too, as it heralded the earnest arrival to centre stage of the greatest exponent of the oval ball code this country – or perhaps the world – has ever seen.
Equally as seminal, though, I feel, was the occasion the following year when Ireland defeated England in Dublin. You’ll recall, 2001 was the year the Championship was delayed due to the Foot And Mouth outbreak. Fate decreed that the chariots rolled into town seemingly to complete the formality of taking the title.
Not for the first – or last – time however, the script ended up in the paper shredder as the home team produced an outstanding effort, capped off by a memorable Keith Wood try. That day planted the first molecules of momentum that would eventually lead to a few Triple Crown triumphs and, ultimately, a Grand Slam victory in 2009.
Now, such is the way rivalry is an essential part of sport – for followers at least – that the best measure of what state rugby was at in the country was generally how they done in direct contests with England. So, apart from the immeasurable historical significance attached to it, the unforgettable conquest of England in Croke Park was another sign something major was afoot.
At another level, mind you, how the provincial teams have fared has become a barometer just as important. Indeed, it wouldn’t be applying elastic to the situation to suggest that the success enjoyed by our four teams in European competition has been crucial to the prosperity the national team has been enveloped in for the best part of a decade.
Maybe it’s only fitting, then, that – given the references that were made previously about the national team being in transition – it appears similar sentiments could quite legitimately be attributed to the provinces as well. Winds of change appear to be swirling in all directions on the rugby scene.
Connacht and Ulster have undoubtedly made notable progress in recent times. Yet, the sense is that the best is yet to come from both. As for Munster and Leinster, gut feeling after their most recent encounter was that the latter may be – to some degree at latest – heading towards the sunset whereas the latter give the impression that they may well still be a work in progress.
What was also clear following the Rabo meeting of the two Irish giants was that Munster refrained from engaging in their famed – and highly effective – pick and drive strategy. One can only assume that the change in tack may have been due to the presence of scouts from Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium. If the bastions of French rugby had representatives – and one in particular – at the Dublin venue, they may well have been lulled into a false sense of security.
For, when Toulouse turned up at Thomond, the locals very much reverted to type. Your columnist was lucky enough to be in attendance – once again due to the kindness of James McCarthy. And, as had happened on my two previous visits to the outstanding Limerick venue, I was fortunate to see a try scored right beside me. Keith Earls going over twice out of the three times!
It was undoubtedly the most important of the three rugby matches attended (the first in the Heineken Cup) but also the best. The early Earls score set the locals up nicely but three penalties meant the lead was only four (13-9) at the break. Things really took off after the break however as early tries from Dave Kilcoyne and CJ Stander left Rob Penney’s side well clear.
To their credit, the aristocrats from France didn’t go down easily but the especial highlights of the afternoon from the perspective of the this spectator – five point scores from my two favourite players, Simon Zebo and Paul O’Connell – were the icing on what must be regarded as Munster’s best performance since they defeated Leinster in a Heineken semi final.
Of course, the following day, Leinster bowed out at the hands of holders Toulon. The sense that it was the end of an era for this team – and as a consequence all of Irish rugby – was palpable. Whether the southern province can go on to add another chapter to Ireland’s glorious history in the competition remains to be seen.
This group will most likely have to produce their best display to date in order to do so. Whatever happens, even though there might be plenty of change in several places, the Irish teams have an abundance of talent at their disposal which should see them all being potent forces in European competition for a long time to come.