Rugby Union: Ravenhill result instils sweet hope in Irish hearts

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THE MOST cheering news since England beat South Africa at Twickenham was that Ulster had beaten Stade Francais at Ravenhill, Belfast, so securing a place in the final of the European Cup against Colomiers. The latter French team, by the way, do not come from a suburb of Paris, as the television commentators always say they do, but from a suburb of Toulouse.

The win in Belfast was, if anything, even more cheering than the win at Twickenham. It was equally unexpected but even more romantic. Nevertheless, my colleague Chris Hewett was right to point out yesterday that Saturday did not witness Ravenhill's finest hour, or hour-and-a-half. That was in March, 1948, when Ireland defeated Wales 6-3 (two unconverted tries from J C Daly and Barney Mullan to one from Bleddyn Williams) to win the first and, so far, the only Grand Slam in the country's history.

I did not see that match but saw the equivalent game a year later at St Helen's, Swansea, a ground which, like Ravenhill, is sadly no longer in use for international fixtures. Ireland were not in contention for the Grand Slam this time. They had been beaten by France at Lansdowne Road in their first match of the Championship. But they had gone on to beat England and Scotland.

They were stronger than they had been in the previous season. George Norton had come in at fullback, and Mick Lane and Noel Henderson into the threequarters. Their greatest strengths remained unimpaired: Jackie Kyle and Ernie Strathdee at half-back, and a back row, perhaps Ireland's best ever (though there have been some good ones since), of Jim McKay, Des O'Brien and Jim McCarthy.

Ireland could still win the Triple Crown and that they proceeded to do, by a try from McCarthy converted by Norton to nothing from Wales, even though the latter included such notable performers as Ken Jones, Bleddyn Williams, Jack Matthews, Billy Cleaver, Haydn Tanner, John Gwilliam, Ray Cale and Rees Stephens.

This was Wales first season in white rather than navy blue shorts, but Ireland were still wearing club stockings. Since then they have won the Triple Crown twice, in 1982 and 1985, and the Championship on two further occasions, in 1951 and 1974 - both years in which Wales had, on paper, far the stronger side.

Will we see something of the same kind this year? One of the developments of this season has been the way Irish players have reversed the journey of the old Celtic saints and returned across the Irish Sea: Jonathan Bell and Allen Clarke from Northampton, David Humphreys from London Irish and Simon Mason from Richmond, all of whom were in the Ulster team and who will, among others from the same team, be on the pencilled list for a place in the national side.

Humphreys, in particular, may solve one of Ireland's problems: getting the back line moving after solid work from the forwards. Eric Elwood, invaluable place kicker though he is, has not always managed to do this. Humphreys is as skilled a kicker as Elwood, though it was Mason who successfully performed this task on Saturday.

Eric Miller, formerly of Leicester, is another international who has returned to his native land and, whether coincidentally or not, recovered the form he had displayed before going to South Africa with the 1997 Lions.

In some ways it is a pity that London Irish have ceased to be a true exiles' club. But then, so have the others. The idea of London Scottish being taken over by Bristol is a contradiction in terms, which does not prevent it from being discussed as a serious proposition.

Similarly London Irish have, under the managership of Dick Best, been turned into London Southern Hemisphere and have been deservedly going up the table ever since. However, those Irish players who still retain their places, such as Conor O'Shea, Niall Woods and Malcolm O'Kelly, can only become better players in such exalted company.

The European Cup final is to be played in Dublin. I have no doubt that the Lansdowne Road crowd will be cheering Ulster on instead of behaving like those Scottish football supporters who cheer whatever side happens to be playing England.

Rugby in Ireland has not been infected by the divisions in that country. At the same time, it has played no part at all in healing those divisions. Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien once told me that this was because rugby was played by the middle classes, whereas all the trouble came from the working classes. The Irish rugby team may cause the other countries some trouble this season. At least I hope so.