Monday, January 11, 2010

Irish rugby revels in season in the sun

“Honesty, trust, hard work, the willingness to go the extra little bit. It’s like what I said earlier, nobody was blaming anybody. We had none of that, no cliques, no nothing. We gave it a go in the best way possible. You cannot overestimate honesty.” – Declan Kidney, March 21st, in the corridors of the Millennium Stadium

REWIND 12 months and it’s easy to forget where Irish rugby was. Ireland had just grimly held on to eighth place in the world rankings to secure the last of the second-tier seedings for the World Cup draw courtesy of a forgettable 17-3 wins over an Argentina team further depleted by losing Juan Martin Hernandez in the warm-up.

This had followed New Zealand’s bloodless coup at Croke Park a week before, which had left players and management alike stunned by the lack of confidence within the group as the hangover from the last 12 months of the Eddie O’Sullivan era lingered on.

Entering 2009, Ireland had won just four of its 10 matches in 2008, all at home against the combined might of Italy, Scotland, Canada and the understrength Pumas. All told, in Ireland’s previous 18 matches, there had been 11 defeats, while the other three wins had been a fortunate victory over Italy at Ravenhill and those taut World Cup wins over Namibia and Georgia. Notions of winning a Grand Slam would have had you in a straitjacket.

On the provincial front, admittedly, Munster and Leinster had been restoring pride and self-belief, the former having regained the Heineken Cup and Leinster having won the Magners League, although Michael Cheika’s detractors were still lurking in the long grass.

Munster duly ensured a home quarter-final against the Ospreys by dint of handsome wins over Sale and Montauban, whereas Leinster couldn’t buy a try in the 19-12 defeat to Wasps and 12-3 win over Edinburgh which earned an away quarter-final at Harlequins.

And the big days kept coming. Perhaps, in hindsight, Munster were too good for their own good in their Euro quarter-final rout of the Ospreys, in contrast to the grit Leinster showed in withstanding Harlequins’ best and worst intentions.

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