Rugby: Irish drowning, not swimming

Scotland (7) 38 Ireland (7) 10 Tait, Walton, Weir Tries Hick ie Townsend, Stanger Shepherd 5 Cons Humphreys Shepherd Pens Humphreys
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The Independent Online
When the the Emerald Isle's entire shoal of water-babes was metaphorically sunk in the opening-day heats at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics the man from the Irish Times famously relayed to the folks back home: "First the good news: none of our swimmers drowned here yesterday."

Penning the obituary to Ireland's ultimately funereal Five Nations is not quite such a mournfully dry task. Having given France three-quarters of a game, beaten Wales in Cardiff, and found a scorching quickie in the flame-haired Denis Hickie, at least the Irish were not submerged without the consoling trace of a rubber ring.

The bad news, though, is that no team has ever plumbed such depths on the points-against chart in the 114-year history of the championship. Rowen Shepherd's injury-time conversion on Saturday took the final total to 141, 25 more than the record established by the whitewashed Irish in 1992. Even the tally of tries conceded, 18, was two higher than five years ago.

It is against the perspective of this record-breaking background of underachievement that any attempt to assess Scotland's own record victory against their down-at heel Celtic cousins ought to be made. Neither should it be overlooked that Ireland took the field without six key players on Saturday and finished with another three on a horrific casualty list. Brian Ashton honourably refused to cite that mitigation of a performance he confessed lowered his spirits "almost to the point of embarrassment".

Ashton, before heading homewards to Somerset to think again, also rejected the suggestion that Saturday's engagement was essentially a second division fixture in the European, let alone global, scheme of things. But it will take an encouraging, if not victorious, performance at the Parc des Princes to prevent Scotland's albeit impressive success from being dismissed as a second class act of minimal significance in the championship's final day reckoning.

The Scots have won just once in Paris since 1969 and when Rob Wainwright and his team line up on Saturday week they will face 15 men intent on a place in the history books as the first French team to clinch a Grand Slam on home soil. Lansdowne Road (1987 and 1977), Twickenham (1981) and Cardiff Arms Park (1968) having provided overseas settings for the grand Gallic glories of the past.

"We'll keep our feet on the ground," Richie Dixon, Scotland's coach, promised. And those Caledonian studs will certainly need to be planted firmly on Parisian terra firma to stop the Scots being swept off their feet by a tidal wave of French euphoria.

It is, nevertheless, a step in the progressive direction that Scotland will go to Parc des Princes, for the last time, with a collection of individuals now looking like the genuine article of an international team. Ignoring the opening quarter, and setting aside the merits or otherwise of the opposition, the Scots played as a cohesive unit for the first time since the Grand Slam garments were rolling prematurely off the production line 12 months ago.

Scotland's five tries were all products of commendable collective manufacture. High-speed rucked ball cleared the path for the first two, finished by Alan Tait and Peter Walton, Tom Smith leading the charge like a runaway rhino with a genuine Lions heart.

The new-found Scottish forward power also yielded a try for Doddie Weir, as outstanding in the loose as he was in the line-out, before the back line, tautened by Tait's rugby league nous, lassoed wide for late tries by Gregor Townsend and Tony Stanger.

Amid the wreckage of another record-shattering defeat, it was small consolation for the Irish to reflect with pride on the best try of the day: Jim Staples' blinding blind-side break-out and Hickie's touchdown. The stretcher-borne departure of the hamstrung Staples could have been a metaphor for Ireland's sorry rugby plight.

It was not all bad news for the Emerald Isle on Saturday, however. Michelle Smith took three Olympic gold medals with her to an international meeting in Galway. And she didn't drown in the Leisureland pool.

SCOTLAND: R Shepherd (Melrose); A Stanger (Hawick), A Tait (Newcastle), G Townsend (Northampton), K Logan (Stirling County); C Chalmers (Melrose); B Redpath (Melrose); T Smith (Watsonians), G Ellis (Currie), M Stewart (Northampton), G Weir (Newcastle), A Reed (Wasps), R Wainwright (Watsonians, capt), P Walton (Newcastle), I Smith (Moseley).

IRELAND: J Staples (London Irish, capt); D Hickie (St Mary's College), M Field (Malone), K McQuilkin (Lansdowne), J Bell (Northampton); D Humphreys (London Irish), B O'Meara (Cork Constitution); P Flavin (Blackrock College), R Nesdale (Newcastle), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), J Davidson (London Irish), D Corkery (Bristol), B Cronin (Garryowen), D McBride (Malone). Replacments: C O'Shea (London Irish) for Staples, 24; P Burke (Bristol) for McQuilkin, 65; S McIvor (Garryowen) for O'Meara, 67.

Referee: G Simmonds (Wales).