Saturday, 8 October 2011

Ireland Wielded the Dagger, but will not wear the Rugby World Cup Crown

In politics the old phrase goes that he who wields the dagger, never wears the crown. It could well be said of Michael Heseltine. Ireland, are the 2011 Rugby World Cup equivalent of Michael Heseltine.

In those 80 minutes against Australia in the group stage which resulted in that stunning 15-6 win, they blew the 7th Rugby Union World Cup wide open. The expectation of a titanic first ever New Zealand Vs Australia final was instantly blown to smithereens. Suddenly it was now an all-but dead cert that we would have a clear cut South Vs North Hempisphere final - all thanks to a heroic Irish display.

You would feel then that Ireland deserved to reach the final to face the All Blacks, South Africa or perhaps a re-match against the Australians for their efforts. But fate can be a cruel mistress and so it proved today.

Heroic Ireland
As a Welshman, I was obviously jubilant at the fantastic result this morning. But as a neutral, I would have been desperately sad for the Irish. Despite their earlier heroics in the tournament, it was an equally brilliant defensive performance today by Wales that meant Ireland would not reap the rewards that they had sown.

In his graceful blog post this morning, Stephen Glenn rightly noted that this was the last opportunity for the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy, Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell to shine on the world stage. They had set themselves up to do so in incredible style with that earlier result, but it was not to be. We will not see their likes again in another World Cup and it is indeed likely that this will be their international swansong. What has arguably been the best decade in Irish rugby history is reaching a critical moment in its development and those that we will not see grace an international rugby pitch again will be missed. This was the golden opportunity for them to sign off in a blaze of glory but instead it was with more of a whimper that they left the field of play. It is sad that this has proven to be the case.

Wales Rampant
For Wales however, it is of course a different story.

When the World Cup started last month, as I blogged here, my hope and expectation as was that of the Welsh nation was that we should at least reach the Quarter-Finals. After our shambolic pool stage exit in 2007 however, we knew that nothing could be taken for granted. It was nevertheless expected that we would just about get through the so called 'group of death' by defeating Samoa and Fiji and would gracefully and respectfully bow out to the might of the Tri-Nation Champions Australia in the last 8.

But that's where reality took a different course and Ireland played those 80 minutes against Australia for which we owe them a debt of gratitude. It is Wales and not Ireland however that has taken a growing momentum into the knock-out stages and demonstrated their potential at a yet higher level. Our narrow opening match defeat to current champions South Africa showed that the potential was there but how ironic it now is that had we have won, we would have ended up playing Australia in the final 8 anyway! As it turns out, that narrow loss was followed by a battling win against Samoa and then impressive performances in defeating Namibia and particularly Fiji.

The try count has been high, the level of play has been fast-flowing and the defence has been stern. Indeed, Wales' points difference in the pool stage was only bettered by the All Blacks themselves.

We now look ahead at a French team whose only consistency is its inconsistency. They turned up and played well against England today but who knows which French team will appear next Saturday. Either way, Wales have got a wonderful opportunity to reach a historic first ever World Cup Final.

Shane Williams Scored his 57th Welsh Try Today
Whatever happens, Wales are now guaranteed two more matches in the tournament - matches that, similar to the likes of O'Gara and O'Driscoll today, are likely to see the final flourishes in international ruby from Stephen Jones (if he plays) and Shane Williams. It was Shane who showed just what he brings to the team when he scored his 57th Welsh try to put Wales on their way this morning (his 59th Test try in total - 2 scored for the Lions). It is not inconceivable that what we saw today could be his last try for Wales. I certainly hope not but it reminds me that the thought of a Welsh team without him is not one I can easily get my head around and yet the burgeoning young talent in the team, led by the likes of George North should leave us in no doubt that the future is looking incredibly positive for Welsh rugby.

But that's for tomorrow. The here and now is a golden opportunity to write ourselves a great slice of Welsh sporting history and our boys are up to the challenge.

But at this time of great hope and excitement for Welsh rugby, I spare a thought for a gallant Irish side and those players who will have to put their hopes in a new generation of young Irish hopefuls.

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