IT WAS Vince Lombardi who dismissively declared that second place was nowhere. And given how often the former Green Bay Packers coach finished top of the pile, he was entitled to be sniffy about the runners-up slot.
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For Irish rugby, however, it’s a different story. Given our history, we can’t afford to be sniffy about anything.
So even when you strip away the emotion of this Saturday – it’s England, it’s St Patrick’s Day and that’s reason enough to be motivated – you have to look at the merits of chasing a slot on the podium.
Which basically is this: For four years out of six, Eddie O’Sullivan guided Ireland to within an inch of the Grand Slam/Six Nations championship. One hurdle, usually the French one, proved too high to clear.
Yet – to steal another Lombardi maxim –their ultimate glory came from being continually knocked to their knees and then coming back. The years of finishing second was the making of the team that would eventually get their Holy Grail in Cardiff in 2009.
Fast forward to Saturday. It’s only by winning these make-or-break games that teams can develop a hardened edge because winning, like losing, has a contagious effect. Bear in mind that in 2009, four of Ireland’s five games saw the team either win by a score or come from behind to win, and you begin to appreciate the importance of mental strength. How big an impact did the pain of past defeats help drive the 2009 class on?
So in this respect, Saturday is a dress rehearsal for what’s to come down the road.
What will arrive this week will be the usual hype that follows England whenever they string a couple of good results together. Sunday’s victory over France was more than good but Ireland, too, really impressed last Saturday.
Having said all that, Scotland were far from good – the exception being their giant lock-forward, Richie Gray, who doubled up as their most potent attacker, and is a shoo-in to play on the Lions team who will tour Australia next year.
Yet while the Irish defence parted like the Red Sea when Gray went on his blistering first-half run for Scotland’s only try, otherwise, that defence was excellent on Saturday, clinical in their organisation, patient in their commitment to the tackle and aggressive in the contact zone.
As Kidney said: “We’re going to need to play smart over the coming years in Irish rugby.”
And that is because we don’t have the quality in numbers to play any other way. With O’Driscoll, O’Connell, O’Callaghan and O’Gara nearing the end of their careers, the time for new leaders to emerge is swiftly approaching. Rory Best, damaged ribs and all, proved to be a leader on Saturday. Had he been there, you could have said the same about Sean O’Brien. Stephen Ferris, meanwhile, is a world-class operator and new boy, Donnacha Ryan, is already looking better than Donncha O’Callaghan.
All of this leaves us looking good for Twickenham in the short-term – and next season in the long term.
Yet if we are to progress then a victory this Saturday could prove a seminal moment in the lifespan of this team because sport is full of turning-point stories where a victory in what appeared an insignificant game turned out to be the making of men. This Saturday’s game could be critically developmental.