Friday, 31 August 2007

Let’s us pray….(August 2007)

There’s something slightly disturbing about the thought of knarled, battle-hardened rugby players looking anxiously skyward and offering prays to any number of deities, sprites, fairies and astral beings. However, as the World Cup gets closer you can’t help but think that players and coaches alike are sneaking off to quiet corners to request divine protection in the countdown to kick-off.

For some those prayers have come too late. Ryan Jones, Shane Jennings, Wikus van Heerden, Pierre Spies all casualties. Gareth Jenkins has shown the ruthless streak, which players dread just as much…that fateful call or ‘quiet word’ signalling the end of World Cup glory. The departure of Gavin Henson underlines that ‘show-biz’ reputations count for nothing as international teams eye on the big prize.

Something that the likes of Josh Lewsey would do well to heed. His outburst in The Times smacked more of primadonna football star than senior player in the England squad, who’s role should be to guide and support the younger cohorts. Sure there are times when every player must be frustrated with the performance of his team, but at such a crucial time (when Brian Ashton is trying to cement team belief) it revealed more about worrying trends in the professional era of ‘player power’ and a total lack of respect for his colleagues.

That incident is bound to have sent Ashton’s eyes skyward, but of all the coaches going to France he has more need than most for divine inspiration if England is to defend the mantel of ‘World Champions.’ The performance against Wales was one dimensional, but effective. Andrew Sheridan looked aggressive, while the likes of Andy Farrell and Matt Stevens got good run-outs. And yet although the average England fan will feel slightly relieved they’ve put one over the ‘Taffs’ and thrashed them quite convincingly it would be difficult to argue that the result was achieved what Stuart Barnes demanded.

In fact the following performance against the French revealed key questions remain unanswered. Who is his full-back? Matthew Tait, Josh Lewsey, Jason Robinson or Mark Cueto? Can he confidentally say he’s found the centre pairing he craves? It would almost be possible to count on one hand the number of times the wingers touched the ball in open play in both the Welsh and French games, so it would be difficult to say the backs showed the creativity to unpick any defense. Indeed the one time the Welsh had a standard backs move near the English tryline in the 59th minute they scored.

Will Ashton live to regret axeing Mike Tindall, Dan Ward-Smith and Charlie Hodgson? Looking back at the lessons of the English soccer team at the last Football World Cup it could be said Ashton has made a harsh, but brave and decisive move. But – and there’s always a but - has too much has been made of the crucial South African group match? And will such a blinkered focus limit how England responds in the later stages of the competition, when the physical aggression of the Boks could be married with the lethal running of the Wallabies or an unpredictable Welsh 15 looking for revenge?

Decision makers at this level are critical. Both the pedestrian Welsh match and the more testing French game showed that England still lack decision makers all around the park. Barkley showed some signs of strong running lines, but he doesn’t have the same experience as Hodgson at international level, who although recovering from injury, could offer something different. The selection of Worsley and Corry ahead of Haskell and Ward-Smith again could come back to haunt the coach, because both men have had tremendous club seasons and while experience is vital in the international arena surely form should be respected? The suggestion by David Hands that England’s power pack is reminiscent of the backrow that included Tim Rodber, Deano and Ben Clarke should not be viewed by fans with nostalgic fondness. Instead they should wipe those glistening eyes and remember the opposition England faced – it will not be the same this time around. Both Corry and Worsley have shown their naivety in decision making and Lawrence Dallagio was very subdued against the French, who have played against him often enough to work him out.

The Australian defeat of the Kiwis in the Tri-Nations shows how bruteforce can be outsmarted. Did Joe Worsley at seven show the ball skills of a backrow player, who can support such flowing rugby in the same way as George Smith? Similarly, Lawrence Dallagio and Mike Catt, experienced, intelligent players, but +35 years old! Is this one World Cup too far expecting them to shoulder the heavy burden of decision making around the park? Andy Farrell’s strong, direct and keen, but he missed off-load opportunities and tackles, which a better team would have punished.

Yet England is not alone in being shrouded in dark thoughts. Between now and 8th September any of the coaches going to the tournament could be excused seeking spiritual guidance. The growing list of casualities and doubtfuls would be enough to convert an aethist.

Being French would almost be enough to turn most sane rugby fans into born again believers, because unknown deities seem to be the recourse to understanding which team will turn up to represent your country. As hosts they are under huge pressure to deliver, but having failed miserably to show any form with a sub-standard squad on its recent tour to New Zealand can they say confidently they are a real threat?

Australia is beginning to exhibit that almost Germanic tendency to ‘come good’ as the tournament starts and when Stephen Larkham is on form, they are on fire, as they proved against New Zealand. But Larkham hasn’t always delivered when it matters and there is still doubt about their frontrow.

South Africa come into the World Cup on a high on the pitch, but are dogged by politics off it. Could they be threatened with sanctions by SARFU if they fail to field a squad that is truly representative? They are a young team with some world-class players, but on the big day away from home will they produce the goods?

Then the Irish and the Welsh…who knows? If the World Cup had been played in 2005 Wales would have been odds on, but they have a different squad, different coach and clearly haven’t got the forward aggression to back-up their gifted backs. Ireland nearly beat New Zealand last year, but it was nearly. And then they went on to choke in front of a home crowd when they should have won the Grand Slam…for the third year in a row. Then to cap it all Ireland’s living incarnation of St. Patrick, Brian O’Driscoll, was nearly sidelined for the entire tournament playing a second-class opposition in some far-flung corner of France. Eddie O’Sullivan’s nerves would already have been frayed by Shaggy’s freak injury during the warm-up before the Scotland match, but losing BOD would have seen Ireland’s challenge implode.

So surely the Kiwis are unassailable? They only need to turn up and the trophy is theirs. And yet the Tri-Nations showed areas of weakness. Chris Jack doesn’t appear to have a definite partner. The 12-13 axis seemed to change an awful lot and it is not certain who is the front runner for 12. Of course no one wishes injury on a player before the World Cup, but what if, what if Dan Carter dropped out?

The choker mantel is even heavier on New Zealand shoulders and away from home who knows?
Which brings me on to the selection of a World 15. As this group of players shows no team has total dominance which again suggests that no country can believe it is guaranteed to win the Webb Ellis:

1. Hayman (NZ)
2. Ibanez (France)
3. Nieto (Italy)
4. Matfield (SA)
5. Sharpe (Aus)
6. Burger (SA)
7. McCaw (NZ)
8. Fernandex Lobbe (Arg)
9. Ruan Pienaar (SA)
10. Carter (NZ)
11. Rockoko (NZ)
12. Hook (Wales)
13. O’Driscoll (Ire)
14. Steyn (SA)
15. Montgomery (SA)

Naturally I’m sure the fans of every nation attending the World Cup would be far more certain about their nation’s chances and would dismiss the need for religious intervention.

Still confident? Sajada? Tallit? Rosary Beads?

Thugby rules!! (April 2007 post Irish defeats in Heineken Cup)

England, still smarting from a poor 6 nations showing, licked its collective wounds as its clubs exacted revenge on its closest rivals. In three matches over the weekend English rugby returned to its ‘route one’ comfort zone and bullied its way past stunned Irish and French teams. For the neutrals ‘route one’ offered about as much excitement as a root canal, but in an attempt to banish the demons of the past 6 months Wasps, Leicester and Northampton decided to resort to the slow drudge of nine man rugby sprinkled with an occasional penalty kick.

Harking back the days when the likes of Dean Richards and Micky Skinner were seen as the ‘creative force’ of English rugby Wasps barrelled past Leinster using its aggressive forward play at the base of the scrums and rucks to bash through poor Irish defence. Similarly on opposition ball, exemplified by old-timer Lawrence Dallagio, the Wasps backrow used every ounce of professional guile to out-box their opponents only being caught on camera once with the angel-faced Dallagio still protesting his innocence as he trudged towards the sin bin. In Tom Rees it is clear that the West London club has found an able replacement for the talismanic number eight and he has obviously been listening carefully - particularly during the tutorial on ‘lying on without getting caught.’

If I were Stephen Jones (of Sunday Times ‘fame’) I would be feeling rather smug as I supped my warm fizzy bitter in the clubhouse. An advocate of old style English rugby, he promotes the theory that England should return to its roots in the ‘Dark Ages’ when forwards softened up the opposition so the backs could twist the knife.

Frankly for the rest of us it casts a shadow over the tournament as so many varieties of attacking rugby have disappeared in one fell swoop. Sure the French and Irish have only themselves to blame and if they aren’t anxious yet by Monday morning both their accountants and national coaches will have given them enough reason to be worried.

Clearly the French returned to type deciding either that winning the six nations was enough exertion for one season or that they do rate their domestic trophy more highly than European honours. Either way it is short-sighted on their part, because their national players only have four or five games left to prepare for the World Cup, so a sustained stint in the Heineken would have been valuable for their players.

The problems for the Irish are even more accentuated. Shorn of Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll both Munster and Leinster looked rudderless. With so many other internationals on the park it must be of great concern to Eddie O’Sullivan that other senior players cannot step into the gap, because it is highly likely - particularly when opponents see how clueless the Irish are without them – that the lock and outside centre will come in ‘for special attention’ come the World Cup. Aside from the lack of leadership from other senior players the intensity was lacking, which again is concerning considering the national team will need to play eight games if they are to challenge for the World Cup. Ultimately the performances of Friday and Saturday leave the words of Brian Moore ringing in one’s ears and one can only wonder whether this generation of Irish players will ever lose the tag of ‘chokers.’

But back to the ‘resurgent’ English. While confidence levels must be far higher now (or is that just a deep sigh of relief?) is the return of ‘thugby’ a good or a bad thing? I would argue the latter simply because the game has moved on since the days when Will Carling could bore the opposition into submission. Our friends in the Southern Hemisphere would be more than happy to go toe to toe with nine man rugby. Sorry Stephen Jones, but brute force is not enough!

Having the physical presence only gets you a seat at the table – admittedly Leinster failed miserably on this front with Stephen Keogh and Jamie Heaslip doing their international chances severe damage. However, the difference at the top level must come from line breakers, those moments of inspiration that find the gap. Who is going to provide that inspiration for the English? Additionally, can these teams keep up the same level of intensity in the semi-final and final? The likes of Tom Rees were convincingly mugged at Cardiff Arms Park after putting in a strong performance against France, so can his ilk find consistency?

In the meantime I sink back into a slough of despondency at the prospect of an all English final. I’d almost prefer to watch WWF and have a root canal at the same time than sit through 80 minutes of Leicester and Wasps thumping into one another.

And suddenly I’m struck by blind panic…I’m going to have to support the Scarlets! Something else to blame English club rugby for!

United Ireland (written after France beat Ireland in March 2007)

Simon Barnes of the London Times writes frequently about the indicators of sporting greatness and without wanting to misquote him too much he suggests it boils down to the imposition of will. He talks about great sporting moments when the likes of Michael Jordan and Shane Warne overcome insurmountable odds to impose their will on opponents and win. At times I’ve read this ‘pyscho-babble of sport’ and considered it a credible reason why some teams win and others fail. (In my grumpy cynic moments I dismiss this logic as the over-intellectualisation of sport, typical of the South London gastro-pub mob, who’ve never met Dean Richards in full flight on the rugby pitch and had knock him backwards…and if you can’t remember Deano then you don’t remember ‘the Claw’ and therefore are still having problems renewing your subscription to adult entertainment channels…legal at this point you’re not required to say anything!)

And then watching Ireland fumble their opportunity for greatness yesterday – again – I had to grudgingly concede Ireland fails to convince. Maybe the Irish are born to be second best? That whether individually or as a team, great sports people must have the mental edge to truly set themselves apart, I struggle to see where Irish sportspeople can claim their place.

Fundamentally, my issue is that Ireland could be a great team but we can’t achieve that glory because we don’t behave like a team. We’re are a nation of individual under-achievers….and strangely enough the only time people get upset with that description is when we are upset with someone else patronising us…that says more about us than about the opposition. I want to be seen as an equal to the Kiwis and everyone else….I deserve that…Ireland deserves that …I don’t expect total greatness but I would like the opportunity.

The obvious difference between individual greats like Tiger Woods and Shane Warne is that for a team to win everyone has to believe they can impose their will on the opposition. It is dawning on me with increasing clarity that Ireland cannot muster the collective will power required when our rugby is bedeviled by historical and political baggage that only serves to exaggerate the divide between our players.

Keith Wood flagged the lack of decisiveness at crucial moments in the game, underlined by the woeful restart that cost us the match. Part of me wanted to chastise him, because looking back to the days when he was captain I cursed his team on several occasions for – in my eyes – for failing at crucial times. Now I realise that Woody alone could not win a game and sure you can argue that his team did not have the same talent as today’s Fifteen, but he needed his teammates to believe as earnestly as he did, that they could win. Yesterday’s performance underlines that we have not moved on in this crucial facet of the game. Yes we have the talent, but it was clear the team did not possess the communal belief that they could and should win, that they could impose their will on the game.

We have exhibited it briefly in the Autumn series against Australia and yet that half hour when we bossed them around the park felt alien, if not somewhat uncomfortable, because it displayed a degree of ruthlessness that we have traditionally been reluctant to nurture and reward. I would argue that we will never overcome that mental block until we – every Irish supporter – empower our team to achieve that sense of the collective will power, which will enable us to join the greats.

To achieve it we are going to have to develop a much more inclusive sense of the collective. What I call a ‘United Ireland’ backing a ‘United Irish’ rugby team.

And by that I mean fans and players alike being conscious of and inclusive of all the elements of our collective culture, because to be able to impose the collective will on your opponents you have to have a collective sense of purpose, underlined by common values and goals. Ireland cannot achieve that if we continue to pander to history and unnecessary ceremonial paraphenialia.

I realise that ‘United Ireland’ is a provocative term, one that has its own baggage, but I use it deliberately, because I have reached the end of my tether with the provincial dogma that besets Irish rugby.

Now at this stage I should declare all of my interests in this subject. Firstly, I was not born in Ireland – either North or South – but in what I call the ‘fifth province,’ namely London. I realise the mere mention of that City will provoke snorts of derision and dismissal from the new class of modern ‘celtic tiger’ who never had to experience the realities of third world Ireland. But for many the choices that exist today did not exist for my family, so I would kindly ask those with shorter memories to display a little tolerance. Secondly, I have lived and – occasionally – studied in Belfast, which means I’ve had an opportunity to play rugby there and listen both sides of the discussion. Certainly I do not have all the answers, but my experience gives me a different perspective on yesterday’s proceedings, which I notice the media preferred to avoid as it would have been a little too uncomfortable to air during the media hype around the ‘historic’day.

Playing at Croke Park was a momentus occasion loaded with significance and symbolism, don’t get me wrong, yet I can’t help but be troubled by one question - on who’s terms did we celebrate this event? In our obsession with myths and legends I would argue it was a one-sided affair concentrating on the Republic’s ‘struggle’ against the British Empire, but I did not see much mention of the Ulster players in the fanfare. Quite sensibly they may have wanted to avoid the sentiment that seemed to permeate every article I read, but in the face of such chest beating I wonder what effect it may have had on their preparations, and ultimately their sense of inclusion in the common cause?

I am not questioning their commitment on the field, which will never be in doubt, but psychologically what must it have been like for them in the heartland of Gaelic Games with a stadium echoing to the sound of the ‘Soldier’s Song?’ Perhaps the players would be affronted at the implication that something could distract them from their concentration on the common cause, but looking down the French line during the national anthems and comparing to the Irish team was telling.

Ultimately Ireland will never succeed on the rugby pitch until we have a ‘United Ireland.’ Now before I’m sent to the same purgatory as Jade Goodey, let me explain. I want Ireland to win the Rugby World Cup. If you’d had to listen to the gloating of Jonathan Davies and Jeremey Guscott as long as I have, then you would understand.

I believe we have a team that could win the World Cup. But there is a ‘but.’ Why?

It comes back to the ‘imposition of will’ and Ireland will never impose its will on the opposition consistently and – more importantly during the big games – until they are confident and believe in the team they are playing for…i.e. they are a United Irish team. Importantly I believe the attitude and response of the Irish supporters is crucial, because we will only succeed if we step beyond tribal boundaries. While fans at Croker, all hoarse today from shouting their support for the team would argue this point, I believe our contribution to the ‘collective,’ to this ‘United Ireland’ should be something different. How much more powerful would our collective will be if fans and players were all sworn to one goal that rose above traditional symbols and songs that only represent part of the collective? The burden of responsibility for that change lies with us, the fans, not the players.

They play for each other and more often than not they play superbly together, but when opportunities for greatness slip from our grasp I can’t help but wonder what difference it would make if the team was embued with an all inclusive sense of purpose? Last year I was so happy that we came back from the dead at Twickenham to win the Triple Crown I almost had enough to drink to forget the fact that we threw away the Grand Slam in Paris…sadly the headache the next day did not let me forget what had slipped through our grasp.

We claim the old days are gone, when we were happy just to beat England or not get the Wooden Spoon, yet we have not made that final step up – and it is a step for all of us to take, not just the team.

To me this issue is symbolised by the national anthem. Sure, one understands the diplomatic reasons why these traditions are followed, yet when you look down the line at the Irish team not everyone is engaged, not everyone is bought in. How can you impose your will on the opposition if you don’t or can’t agree on what you’re fighting for in the first place?

Perhaps I am restarting a well-worn debate that will have the nationalists tub-thumping, but surely it is time we paid our respects to the past and properly embraced this supposed new era of tolerance? A big step for some but to me a true sign of the new tolerance on this island would be to stop playing the national anthem at games. A gesture more than anything else – and it would not be a miraculous cure-all – but when I look at the pomp and hype before yesterday’s game I can’t help but think our desire for the spectacle is hurting the team.

Rather than minimising sensitivities yesterday’s circus in Croke Park only accentuated the differences between players, who are meant to put their bodies on the line for each other. I wonder who was meant to benefit from the usual protracted premble. If the politicos were that desperate to get their mugs on the telly would they not have been better served kissing babies or opening community centres for old people? While everyone was obsessed with the ‘historical’ significance of rugby being played in Croke Park, did anyone ask an Ulster player or fan how they felt about the occasion? Sure it would have been difficult to offer a truly candid opinion, but it seems as though the ‘celtic tiger generation’ has forgotten ‘folklore’ for them is still recent ‘history’ for those in the north of the country. While it’s great from a media perspective to indulge in such dramatics, it is still raw for both sides in the North.

Until Ireland reflects its now broad and complex make-up we will continue to be seen as the ‘plucky Irish.’ Living in London you have a heightened sense of ‘smell’ for such phrases, ‘the luck of the Irish’ etc, etc. It reflects a characterisation of this country that has been built up over the years, which every year on the rugby pitch we struggle to shake off…perhaps one year Ireland beat England, but that’s an English team without ‘Jonny Wilkinson’ so it’s not quite the same thing…is it?

In two weeks time that ‘rawness,’ that sensitivity will be even more acute. If ‘we’ – and I mean all of us connected with this island – want to win that match, what will be the priority? Will it be the emotional media scrum or will it be the imposition of the wills of 15 men over their opponents…15 men united in one cause…to win for each other against their opponents. I believe we all have our part to play in helping our team to achieve that common sense of purpose.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Green, White and Blue

It all seemed so rosy last Autumn. A solid summer tour to New Zealand and Australia followed by sound performances in the Autumn internationals. And yet in the midst of ‘success’ there were worrying signs that most of us Irish fans chose to ignore pretending they might go away.

Primarily failing to finish off the big guns when the opportunity arose. Then in November there were other concerns. Neil Best, who’d been such a Trojan throughout the summer campaign, started to run out of steam probably at around the same time as his province. (Ulster went on to spend the rest of the season sliding down the Magniers league faster than a beginner skier on a black run) Munster threatened so much at the end of 2006, but when it really mattered they were blown away by the aggression of Leicester, who will go on to provide half the England team. The other half, Wasps, bullied Leinster off the park in their match. This is the same England team that was comprehensively beaten by France.

But then again we are Irish so surely we shouldn’t expect too much? It’s alright to run New Zealand close, but beating them? That would be impolite after them being such kind hosts. Sure didn’t we beat South Africa, isn’t that great? Top four or five in the world of rugby. Imagine that! And beating the English in Croke Park, wasn’t that the best?

Sometimes I wish I weren’t Irish.

We seem to have trademarked underwhelming success, because even though we can all remember some mighty victories we can remember more defeats. It is partly genetic. It is scientifically proven that humans have a natural leaning towards the negative, but with the Irish it is something deeper.

Melancholy and sadness are part of the psyche. So ingrained is it that from Jonathan Swift to Oscar Wilde and Brendan Behan we’ve made jokes about it and turned it into theatre that today has become the money spinner that those tourists seek on their 4 day whirlwind tour of ’Oireland.’

A historian could give you a more accurate perspective, but virtually every major event in Ireland’s history is littered with ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys.’ And put bluntly we have perhaps gotten fat on the profits of romantic tales of what might have been. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the Soccer World Cup brought the party atmosphere and a touch of magic, the jesters providing some light entertainment before the real work started. That ‘ah jaysus didn‘t we give it some stick’ tag.

There are times when Roy Keane’s intensity is too much, but on this point I am totally behind him. Why should we settle for participation and not contention? Why celebrate the ‘success’ of beating England at Croke Park having failed to beat France two weeks earlier? We have won the Triple Crown three times in the last four years, but how many times have we lost the Grand Slam?

Oh to be English. (I can’t believe I just said that!) That Dunkirk spirit, that stubbornness in the face of insurmountable odds stuck in the trenches with shells flying everywhere and death imminent. “Many of my colleagues may die,” says Tommy, “But I ain’t giving in…cor blimey.”
While not wishing to make light of the tragedy of World War One that image does stick with me when I consider recent important performances. The Thomond Park record broken by the Tigers or that men and boys encounter between Wasps and Leinster.

Other nations do not appear to suffer similar challenges. The Australians, with an almost Germanic precision, appear to be arriving at the World Cup with an outfit that could unsettle anyone. The metronomic ease with which they’ve timed their run compares with the stuttering, disbelieving performances of Ireland over the last four months. And to add insult to injury even the French crowd are starting to believe in their team, as the noise levels in Marseille proved.

Certainly none of the ’warm-ups’ have instilled confidence in anyone, least of all our players. Why can Ireland not show that American ‘will to win,’ that unashamed ego? Is it because we have made too much of the ‘theatre of sadness’ in which we like to wallow? Individual players continue to surprise, such as ROG, whose outbursts sometimes appear more primadona than most, yet during the Six Nations and in the recent Italian encounter he broke the opposition’s line to save the blushes. As a leader is Ronan failing to transmit his belief to others or is it their responsibility to stand up and make themselves counted? Can it simply be attributed to the failing of Eddie O’Sullivan? Can we just blame him and be comfortable in our ‘nearly man title?’

If you look at the team we are supposed to have several world class players. How many have performed consistently well over the last 12 months? When you consider the team of Keith Wood, one of the greatest Irish players ever, he did not have a world class team around him and there are important moments when that clearly showed. Yet this outfit can challenge the best teams in the world, they have demonstrated that capability. But in the best performances not only did the leaders lead, but the ‘rest’ followed. The worker bees and unsung heroes. In the last 12 months Ireland has only shown the odd 15 minutes or half a match of brilliance, because the leaders have not been inspiring and the drones have not been droning.

Systematically, ruthlessly and patiently.

Some might say we don’t possess such traits, yet when I watch Kerry dispose of Dublin and Monaghan in the GAA I see professionalism that would be better suited to the Milan derby in Serie A. And though I run the risk of never being allowed into Kerry again why can’t we take their self-belief and stick it in the national squad? I’m certain they wouldn’t mind lending us the ‘Gooch’ as a replacement fly half.

But then again that would mean crossing tribal boundaries, ignoring history and symbolism. And sure that would bring the national industry of ‘underwhelming success’ to a standstill?

Imagine 82 minutes are gone in the semi-final of the World Cup. Ireland is winning, but the opposition is on our line. If there were one person you could turn to, the stubbornest mule in the place, the one fella who wouldn’t back down, is there anyone on this island of Ireland who you could think of?

Ignore history, politics, tribalism.

I know who I’d choose. There is a Ballymena man, who stirs passion and on paper certainly lacks the rugby skills of Davey Humphries, but has the mentality to hold out against all the odds.

Sure he has been reviled by many on this island of Ireland for a long time, but isn’t this trip to France the opportunity to test how far we’ve come? There are beliefs in this country that are strident, there are viewpoints that are seemingly irreconcible, but don’t they reveal traits that could be harnessed for the greater good of our ‘cause’ on the Continent?

Reverting to genetic type I would say that today I feel green, white and blue on many levels. Proud of the successes of our team to date and a little expectant. But sadly not too much, because I’ve anticipated that euphoria before only to be left with that feeling of ‘underwhelming success.’ Yet like Roy Keane - and secretly like more and more of the Irish nation - I am greedy for more.

And if I were to keep with our great theatrical traditions I’d say this….our first child is due on 8th September, my birthday is 21st September, the day I take my father , who has prostate cancer, to see Ireland vs. France in Paris. I don’t know where we’ll be in four years time, but I know where we’ll be on 21st September and we both understand how important ‘la Revanche’ against France will be to our hopes of World Cup glory.

As I said today I feel ‘green, white and blue.’ But then I can’t help thinking of ‘Big Ian’ and I know he’d only have one thing to say.

‘No retreat, no surrender.’ Isn’t it time those words took on a new meaning?