Kidney and co within reach of historic Slam
March 14, 2009
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip celebrates scoring the crucial try at Murrayfield © Getty Images
Ireland are now just 80 minutes away from ending a 61-year wait for a second Grand Slam thanks to some magical words from coach Declan Kidney.
Ireland were staring at yet more Championship heartache after slipping to a 12-9 half-time deficit at the hands of Scotland in Edinburgh and the outlook was not great with the men in green lacking any real bite and obviously feeling the pressure of the occasion.
But ten minutes in the presence of their quietly-spoken boss appeared to do the trick. The side that returned to the field were no longer crippled by fear of failure and regained enough of their spark to see off the Scots and set up the Championship decider with Wales in Cardiff next weekend.
Kidney himself played down his contribution insisting he just pointed out that his players were giving away field position and penalties to their hosts and it was costing them. He does not strike you as the kind of coach to send the tea cups flying but someone put the rocket up Ireland. It must surely have been one of the most important pep talks he has ever given and further details are sure to emerge later this week amidst the avalanche of Grand Slam talk that Kidney and co can no longer ignore.
Skipper O'Driscoll in particular goes from strength to strength having discovered a new lease of life in this year's Six Nations. He wasn't able to maintain his try-a-game ratio but produced a crucial try-saving tackle that in years to come may well be considered a defining moment in their march to glory.
Scotland livewire Thom Evans offered the latest example of his growing stature with a superb chip and chase counter attack that had Ireland stretched to breaking point - he was hauled down just short of the line but was able to offload to team mate Phil Godman who would have had an easy score had O'Driscoll not tracked back to take out the Scotland No.10 with a Grand Slam-saving tackle.
Once again their captain was leading by example and that act alone will have lifted his side no end. Big games are all about momentum and it shifted with that tackle.
Fly-half O'Gara was another to come through his latest test of character. Question marks were raised following his faltering performance against England but he responded with four penalties and a sweetly-struck drop goal. He had an easier ride than he did at the feet of the baying England defence and the selection of scrum-half Peter Stringer saw him take some of the field kicking pressure from his half-back partner.
In addition, the Munster No.10 collected a notable record en route to victory by overtaking England's Jonny Wilkinson at the top of the all-time Championship points scorers.
O'Connell too was his usual colossus - not only imperious in the lineout but handing out big tackles in the loose.
Scotland were unable to follow up their victory over Italy with another success but they made another step forward. For much of the opening period they dominated the breakdown where they needed to thrive if they were to derail the Irish's quest for the Slam. They worked hard and had done their homework. All the early vim and vigour came from hosts but they could not sustain their effort.
Ireland rediscovered their game after the break with Jamie Heaslip crossing for game's crucial try. His premature celebration appeared to be especially aimed at his coach who surprisingly benched him for the game and it will probably cost him in one form or another this week. That try settled any remaining nerves the visitors had and although they failed to find top gear they had more than enough to contain the Scots.
Of note is that this was the first time Ireland had come back from a half-time deficit to win in nine years - an amazing stat and a further example of the new strength of character that Kidney appears to have instilled in the side.
Both these sides are no doubt benefiting from the introduction of fresh, young talent - a lesson some of their Six Nations rivals could follow - but sadly only one will be going for a Grand Slam in Cardiff next weekend where they will need to raise their game again if they are to secure the long-awaited Grand Slam.