Season of mist and sour spitefulness
November 28, 2009
Revenge: Ireland's Jamie Heaslip celebrates a famous victory over South Africa at Croke Park © Getty Images
Ireland brought the curtain down on a glorious year with a well-deserved victory over South Africa at Croke Park that cemented their status as Europe's No.1 side.
It has been a remarkable few months for Irish rugby with an historic Six Nations Grand Slam setting the tone. But that was only the start with their dominance stretching to the domestic stage with Leinster marching to Heineken Cup glory and Munster claiming the Magners League title.
Towering lock Paul O'Connell was then chosen to lead a British & Irish Lions squad, dominated by his countrymen, to South Africa where they went toe-to-toe with the world's best - coming up just short. But there was more to come with a battling draw against Australia and a famous win over the Springboks providing a fitting finale to a stand-out year.
As much as the Irish camp may have played down talk of revenge in the build up to this clash there is no doubt that there was some bad blood lingering in the wake of what was hard-fought Lions tour. The mist descended on the stadium ahead of the game and it was soon clear it had had a red tinge to it. As fitting as the words of John Keats' Ode to Autumn are at this time of year, there was nothing mellow about this encounter with crunching tackles and afters being dished out at every turn.
Fly-half Jonny Sexton will claim the majority of the headlines and rightly so with an assured display that oozed confidence. This was only his second Test appearance but it looked like he had graced the international stage for as long as his centurion skipper Brian O'Driscoll. Sexton's ascent to the Ireland No.10 shirt came as no surprise to those who have witnessed his dominance at provincial and 'A' level and his eye-catching Test bow against Fiji last weekend. This may not be the end for veteran stand-off Ronan O'Gara but Sexton has the all-round game to dominate his position for many years to come.
In fullback Rob Kearney the Irish have a fully-fledged global star. An archetypal modern fullback, he possesses a monster boot, is assured under the high ball, is committed in defence and is a lethal and intelligent attacking weapon with bags of pace - and the good news for Irish fans is that he appears to still be improving.
Ireland No.8 Jamie Heaslip was bristling in the hours that followed the end of the Lions' dream this summer and the months since seemed to have done little to pacify him. As a result he led from the front with a powerful display even when forced onto the back foot at the rear of a creaking scrum. He was also his impressive best in the loose, taking the attack to the Springboks, and his usual handful at the breakdown.
A reflection on success for Ireland rarely omits their talismanic captain Brian O'Driscoll and this is no exception. His crunching tackle on South Africa's fullback Zane Kirchner snuffed out the Springboks' hopes in the final moments of the game and it is apt that he had the final say at the end of a year where he has been at the heart of everything good about Irish rugby. Led dazed and confused from the field, he deserves all the accolades that will come his way.
Defeat for the Springboks brings an end to a disastrous tour that has seen them taste defeat in four of their five games - including shock losses to club sides Leicester and Saracens. The end of year tour proved a bridge too far for Peter de Villiers' side - they were out on their feet at Croke Park, a shadow of the side that went to war with the Lions in the summer.
That bruising three-Test series was always going to take its toll but to their credit, they maintained that momentum to claim the southern hemisphere crown with plenty to spare. But the year ends on a low note and it may get worse before it gets better with citings set to be handed out to lock Andries Bekker for dropping a knee into Ireland's David Wallace - an offence that could easily have resulted in a red card - and JP Pietersen for a high and dangerous tackle on Ireland's Tommy Bowe.
The late withdrawal of the enforcer that is lock Bakkies Botha will not have helped their cause and combined with the rusty hooking skills of captain John Smit the Springboks' lineout looked uncharacteristically fallible.
Heinrich Brussow continues to attract plaudits and quite rightly so. Somehow his name is missing from the shortlist for the International Rugby Board Player of the Year that seems destined for All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw. But make no mistake it is the tenacious Brussow who is not only the form openside in the game at the moment but arguably the best and most influential player in the game full stop.
Sadly the Springboks' other star of 2009 - fly-half Morne Steyn - suffered a rare off-day. His boot has been a potent weapon for South Africa this year but a cold, wet and wintry Dublin day proved to be this Superman's kryptonite. But let us not forget he only has 11 Test caps to his name and this game will no doubt have provided a valuable lesson on his ascent to greatness.
De Villiers opted to call on the services of three Europe-based players - props BJ Botha and CJ van der Linde and centre Jean de Villiers - as injuries ravaged his squad but how he would have wished he's called on another - Frans Steyn. The rocket launcher boot of Racing Metro's high-profile signing would surely not have been found wanting in the way that De Villier's frontline kickers were at Croke Park.
With that in mind, SA Rugby must reconsider their selection policy moving forward. But that will come too late for De Villiers and co who must front up to the savaging surely awaiting them on their return home.
Ireland's latest success may not have been the most pleasing to the eye but will serve as a significant warning to their Six Nations rivals ahead of the defence of their crown next year. There remains work to do but the bar has been re-set in terms of expectation amongst fans and the media but you get the feeling that Kidney and co have no intention of resting on their laurels.