|Thanks for the memories (Picture: Irish Times)
It’s well documented how Jack’s Army played their part in lifting Ireland out of the gloom of the late 80’s and early 90s. In Declan Kidney’s rugby warriors we have had a team who have made this recession oftentimes fade to the background as we rejoiced and revelled in their victories. They carried the hopes of a nation on their shoulders, and rarely have they let us slip.
March 21st, 2009. A great day to be alive and Irish. Celebrations started around 5pm as Ireland claim their first Grand Slam since the Jack Kyle era, and continue well into the night, fueled further as Bernard Dunne claims a world title. What housing crash? What recession? Ireland for a fleeting second feels like a place where anything is possible once again. Tommy Bowe’s version of Black Velvet Band becomes an anthem for a country revitalised. If we could but have bottled the euphoria.
Fast forward two years. Our country is still in the doldrums, our presidential election is a shambolic affair with perhaps two genuine candidates, and there seems to be no end to economic woes. Every day people young and old leave for pastures new. Ireland is a bleak place, and for many there is no job, no reason to get up in the morning.
Enter the heroes of Cardiff once more, with a few new faces. People with no reason to get up in the morning drag themselves out of bed to cheer on O’Driscoll and co. The cobwebs of a poor August are blown off against a physical American team, and then the unimaginable happens. The Wallabies are steamrolled by an awesome Irish pack. A mixture of the experienced and the somewhat raw, from 1 through to 8 their common denominators were pride, power and passion.
Fans at home and abroad wept tears of unadulterated joy. We were a nation once again. A nation leaking its children at an extraordinary rate. The Irish diaspora is swelling, and the majority of them seemed to be in New Zealand for the last month. They came from within Kiwi Country, from Australia and further afield. Some have been living abroad for years, some since the recent harsh times at home forced them out. Many of the tricolours waved in the stadia were held aloft by people who had spent a large chunk of their savings to follow the team from Ireland. The team never missed an opportunity to praise them, and rightly so.
When Ireland topped the pool, we dared to dream as a nation. We dared to dream of a final against the All Blacks. We dared to dream of a World Cup Final, of O’Driscoll lifting the Webb Ellis trophy.
Wales put paid to that, and we shall watch the rest of the tournament with the vaguest of interest. But the memories of a famous win against Australia will remain long after the hurt of losing to our Celtic cousins diminishes.
We may well have seen the World Cup swan song of some of the greatest rugby players the world has ever seen. Forget Wilkinson or Carter, we had O’Gara. Ice courses through his veins, ice that was sometimes melted by the heat of his passion for winning, but a better controller of a game you would be hard pushed to find. O’Driscoll, universally acknowledged as being one of the greatest centres of all-time. He never shirked a tackle, and rarely missed a scoring opportunity. Three tries in Paris all those years ago, and rarely a downward blip in his performances since. O’Connell. Ferocious, committed, magnificent. Finding a pack leader like him will not be easy. O’Callaghan, his partner in crime. Never gave less than his all for his country, and always willing to stick his head where many would decline to stick their foot. These are the O-Apostrophes who have been the backbone of this Irish side for more than a decade, and if they should depart when the dust settles from this World Cup then they should leave with their heads held high and our unconditional praise ringing in their ears.
We are a small and proud nation, one which punches above its weight in sport to a level that at times verges on the ridiculous. It is something intrinsic in our nature that drives us to relish a challenge, that makes us often the victorious underdogs. Tell us we cannot do something, that we cannot overcome an obstacle, we dare you. We shall do, we shall overcome.
If our politicians had half the heart and passion of our sporting heroes, this would be the greatest country in the world. Alas they do not, but because of the feats of those same sporting heroes, there are times when the people of this country feel they could walk on water. For that we thank them.