Rugby Union: McGuinness acquires the taste

Simon Turnbull hears the architect of Ireland's heroics say the job is half finished
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The Independent Online
THE match programme at the Stade de France last Saturday listed Ireland's scrum-half as "Colin McGuiness". By Monday it was clear that the green- shirted demi de melee had truly made his name on the Calais side of La Manche. Conor McGuinness, L'Equipe proclaimed with greater Gallic accuracy, had been the man of the Paris match. "He controlled the corridor between the teams and snuffed out any chance of French counter-attacks," Pierre Berbizier observed. And the one-time Agen provocateur knows a thing or two about the scrum-half business.

So does Tony Ward, having played alongside some of the best in his time. And the former Ireland and Lions outside-half picked out the marvellous McGuinness as "a player apart" in Paris. Not that the praise for the 22- year-old Dubliner ended there. Fergus Slattery described him as "simply outstanding". Mick Doyle called him "brilliant". By Monday night everyone, it seemed, was raising a glass to the pure genius of McGuinness - everyone, that is, except the man himself.

He could be found in a quiet corner of the St Mary's College clubhouse in Dublin. Monday night is training night for St Mary's. And their scrum- half, national hero or not, had a vital All Ireland League game against Old Crescent for which to prepare. "It's strange," McGuinness mused, "to be congratulated on a loss." It was, though, a moral victory for the Irish in France - cloaked, albeit, in the harsh reality of a 16-18 defeat.

They arrived in Paris to the sound of the guillotine being sharpened, in preparation for their ritual public execution by the French XV who had cut Scotland to shreds two weeks earlier. But the French razor was blunted in the gleaming Grand Stade. The magnificent Magne and those flying machines met their match in the 5ft 8in McGuinness and the other 14 giants in green.

Fighting odds of 33-1 and with the worst record in France since the days of Sacha Distel (their last Paris win dates back to 1972), Ireland came within three points, within seven tantalising minutes, of one of the most famous upsets in the history of the Five Nations' Championship. McGuinness epitomised the inspirational Irish effort, tackling with tigerish conviction out wide and close in to the scrum, pinning back the French with his pin-point box-kicks and dissecting the French defence with his razor-sharp breaks. The defining moment of a defiantly bold performance came in the 67th minute when Ireland's half-back sniper scooped the ball from the base of a scrum and zipped through a chink in the home guard.

"His ability to break at pace adds a dimension missing from Irish rugby since cheeky Colin Patterson," Ward enthused in the Irish Independent, comparing the Five Nations novice (McGuinness's previous two caps were won against New Zealand and Canada) with the livewire Ulsterman who stepped into Terry Holmes's boots on the Lions' tour to South Africa in 1980. Such high praise will not, however, sweep Ireland's new hero off his feet. McGuinness, a chartered accountant contracted to the IRFU on sabbatical, intends to keep his size nines planted firmly on emerald terra firma. "No disrespect," he said, "but if a player listens to his own press it's the end of him. I'm no different to who I was last week."

Such pragmatism was the cornerstone of the odds-defying Irish display in Paris. It was instilled to stunning effect by Warren Gatland, the former New Zealand hooker who has nurtured McGuinness in the Connacht provincial side and who has assumed the reins of Ireland from Brian Ashton. "To be honest," McGuinness said, "we went to Paris to put a bit of pride back in the jersey. But Warren built up our spirit and our self-belief. By the Friday we really believed we could win.

"Opening up the fax line for messages from the Irish public had an incredible effect. When Warren announced he was going to do it I know a lot of people said, 'What a sad thing.' But it really did work. We had our backs to the wall. Every paper under the sun was saying we were going to get a thrashing. But Warren isolated us from that. He surrounded us with all these messages of goodwill, 2,000 of them. They were pinned to the walls of the team-room at the hotel and to the dressing-room walls at the ground. It was truly amazing to feel all of those people behind you. That came through in the game."

Gatland's All Black nous came through, too. "He looked at the French," McGuinness said, "and realised if we gave them room out wide they would cut us to bits. We played in their faces with everyone, out to the wings, pushed up. We got the French to turn inside and they don't really hurt you there." Before leaving Paris, Gatland also got his squad to focus on the challenge they will face at Lansdowne Road on Saturday: playing Wales with the pressure of national expectation upon them. He had them on the training ground at 8.30am last Sunday.

"It would have been easy for us to come home and lose our heads," McGuinness said, "to wallow in the praise. Warren himself would admit the job's only started. It's one thing to play well when you're the underdogs. It's much more difficult when you're expected to win. We've got to play with the same pride and the same spirit against Wales. And this time we've got to win."