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Darker days a mere memory now as we revel in the best of times for Irish rugby

Maybe my 10-year-old thinks it’ll be this good forever. I know it can’t be, but I’m not telling her that

My 10-year-old daughter and I got a late ticket for Ireland’s recent Six Nations match against France and found ourselves at one of the best games of rugby I have seen at Lansdowne Road or anywhere.

Near the end, when Ireland were comfortable enough that some of the supporters were scampering down the steps for an early exit, my daughter told me: “I’ve never seen us lose”.

“Really?” I replied, doubtful.

Nope, never. She listed off the Ireland and Leinster matches she had been to in Lansdowne Road and the RDS. Only a handful, but growing. Six Nations, Autumn Internationals, pre-World Cup friendlies. URC games. Champions Cup. Not a defeat for her team among them.


She doesn’t know, I thought. She has no idea about the fatalism that has come with following Irish rugby. She has no sense of the knot I have carried in my stomach for almost 40 years of going to these matches. The sense that it’s all about to go wrong. That hope would be ruthlessly punished.

For that, I blame the 1985 Triple Crown win. As a 10-year-old, I watched the England match from a row of skinny benches at the foot of the south terrace. In the last minute, from three-quarters of a pitch away, I saw one of the most famous moments in Irish sport unfold.

Ciaran Fitzgerald lobbed to the back of an unruly lineout. Donal Lenihan charged, took a tackle and placed the ball on the ground with the ease of a man putting an empty champagne glass on a passing tray. The ruck was over before it had begun. Michael Bradley dive-passed and his chest hardly touched the grass before Michael Kiernan had drop-kicked the ball over the bar.

Glorious, delirious victory.

It was my first season going to Ireland matches. I knew it would be like this every year.

It was not, of course. Not the next year. Not for many years. Instead, the graph of Irish rugby plunged and kept plunging until the scars ran deep.

Success stopped being measured in silverware but instead in one-off wins against the odds and the occasional relief of avoiding the Five Nations wooden spoon.

We would occasionally turn England over just to remind ourselves that our heart still beat. We somehow defeated Wales most years when we couldn’t beat Scotland or France in any year of the 1990s. We might have the odd rampaging opening 20 minutes against the French while they sucked the last of their cigarettes, shook off the chill, and allowed us to run out of steam so that they could finally begin swatting us aside.

Or worse – and exhibit A in my fatalism – was how close we would occasionally come to an against-all-odds triumph. Take the 1991 World Cup quarter-final against Australia when Gordon Hamilton charged, knees like pistons, face grimacing, towards our roars in the North Terrace to score a late try.

And no sooner had the pitch invaders clambered back into the stands than Michael Lynagh had struck back with an “okay, you’ve had your fun” inevitability that you could sense coming as soon as they sent the ball wide.

Over this period, Irish tries became so treasured that scorers were instant heroes, lost among the celebrating supporters spilling in from all sides. A win was an excuse for a full pitch invasion.

But on too many days, the Lansdowne Road roar would quickly give way to sighs as 48,000 people began to realise how this was going to go. Again. The atmosphere would drift off in the breeze. The only thing invading the pitch would be the thin clouds of cigarette smoke from the terraces.

We would take our defeat and once again head out into the crush towards the exit, snug against strangers’ winter jackets, half-shuffling, half-carried, trusting that we’d eventually find our way out through the gate and to safety.

Watching them on YouTube now, 1980s matches appear chaotic and crazed. Rucks pile high with bodies. Scrums quickly form into squirming masses, with front-rows accelerating into each other like rutting stags. Yet, among this general recklessness were passages of speed, grace and wondrous sequences of passing and offloading.

Gradually, the game we now recognise began to take shape. Defensive walls began to form. Rucks became sparsely populated. The bodies grew and jerseys tightened. Each scrum began to require a few attempts and a breakout conference. Lifting brought order to the lineouts. Professionalism arrived and the player’s occupations disappeared from the programme notes.

Lansdowne Road became the Aviva. Ticket prices went up and up and, oh Lord do they keep going up. Where once the public announcements sounded like notices from the headmaster, it would eventually appear like a game had broken out at a 2FM radio show.

And Ireland began to win. Not just to win more games, but against teams we’d not defeated for decades. There were always fine Irish players, but I still remember the shifting of tectonic plates that was Keith Wood’s arrival. In everything he did, he carried the attitude of a man who had decided he was sick of this nonsense.

Then came Brian O’Driscoll, who induced not just cheers but gasps. I can still vividly recall the moment against South Africa in 2006 when he dummied the entire North Terrace. Moved one way, slipped the ball out the other. Shane Horgan was scoring a try while everyone looked in the other direction wondering where the ball had disappeared to.

Good days gathered momentum until they became great ones. Another Triple Crown – at last – in 2004. The perfection that was the England game at Croke Park in 2007. Actually winning the Grand Slam in 2009, when Stephen Jones’s long-range, last-kick-of-the-game penalty rose and rose and dipped and died.

Fortune appeared to have broken our way at last. I watched that match in a pub at home and, softened by relief and alcohol, burst into happy tears at the final whistle.

Still, it too often felt that for every moment of triumph, the universe would extract a measure of revenge.

Getting to a Grand Slam decider in 2003 only for England to dominate the red carpet and the match.

Watching Vincent Clerc dance through a gap in our defence at Croke Park in 2007.

Pushing the All Blacks close in 2012, so they could give us a record-breaking drubbing the next week.

Those cursed World Cups. I saw us beat Australia in Eden Park in 2011 but was back home just in time to add despondency to the jet lag as Wales knocked us out.

I travelled to both Paris and Cardiff for the 2007 and 2015 World Cup matches against Argentina – damn them for being far too charming to ever dislike – and can still instantly recall the quick, brutal bursting of hope each time.

Worst of all, I was in the Aviva in 2013 when we had raced into a 19-0 lead against the All Blacks. With 30 seconds to go – 30 seconds! – and the ball far from our own line, I turned to my friend and said “we’re going to do it, we’re actually going to do it!”. At which moment referee Nigel Owens blew for a penalty to the All Blacks and, to this day, I blame myself for what happened next.

So, pessimism was learned – and earned. And yet, I begin to tot up the increasing joy this team has brought us in recent years and see how fatalism had become increasingly habitual rather than warranted.

The luck to be in Paris, certain the game was lost, until Johnny Sexton won it with a drop-kick for the ages. Or watching us win a championship there in O’Driscoll’s last game for Ireland, after a forward pass denied a French try.

Beating the All Blacks in 2018, when the crowd refused to give in to the anxiety of New Zealand’s last-minute pressure but instead produced a defiant, bold chorus of The Fields of Athenry.

Beating Australia in Australia. Beating the All Blacks in New Zealand.

And then last weekend against Scotland, when we saw Irish players literally laugh in the face of adversity.

I’ve noticed this loosening of this knot in the stomach on match days. The slipping away of fatalism. Not an expectation of victory yet, but no longer presuming that it is all destined to go terribly, cruelly wrong in a particularly Irish way.

Maybe my 10-year-old thinks it’ll be this good forever. I know it can’t be, but I’m not telling her that. There will be great days. There will be disappointing days. There will be humdrum days. But as the game against France played out, we stayed in our seats. Satisfied. Happy. In no rush to leave. Enjoying it while we can.