Irish to cap progress with Triple Crown

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Ireland beat Scotland at Lansdowne Road on the way to their first Triple Crown in 1894, the winning try was scored by one HG Wells. Had the splendidly named wing from Bective Rangers hopped in a time machine to the present day, he may have been surprised or even put out to discover the Irish had landed the mythical prize on only five more occasions in the intervening 110 years. There will, nevertheless, be a seventh today if Ireland avoid making like the Invisible Man against the Scots at the same venue.

When Ireland beat Scotland at Lansdowne Road on the way to their first Triple Crown in 1894, the winning try was scored by one HG Wells. Had the splendidly named wing from Bective Rangers hopped in a time machine to the present day, he may have been surprised or even put out to discover the Irish had landed the mythical prize on only five more occasions in the intervening 110 years. There will, nevertheless, be a seventh today if Ireland avoid making like the Invisible Man against the Scots at the same venue.

The Triple Crown is, of course, a nonsense; as removed from reality as the other Wells' War of the Worlds, a construct from a bygone age dreamed up by enthusiastic spectators or journalists to add lustre to the annual jousting among the home unions. But it is only marginally more nonsensical than adding France and Italy to the party and calling it the Six Nations' Championship. To devalue one, as has been the intention of some this week, is but a small step from devaluing the other.

Eddie O'Sullivan, the coach who has helped steer Ireland out of a decade or more spent as perennial losers, yesterday made a good fist of capturing the essence of the Triple Crown, calling it "a benchmark" for his side. The last Celtic Union to win it was Scotland in 1990 - and what wouldn't Matt Williams' side, who have lost four matches out of four so far this year, give to be in Ireland's boots?

"The players realise there's an opportunity to win something tangible," said O'Sullivan. "We're two years in [to his reign as coach], and I like to think there's been more ups than downs." A historical context is important here - Ireland finished in the bottom two places of the Championship every season from 1988 to 1999. Now they have a decent chance of concluding the campaign as runners-up for the third time in four years, though taking the Six Nations title is a much taller order.

Brian O'Driscoll, apart from becoming the youngest and quickest Irishman to reach 50 caps, is bidding to join a small band of Triple Crown-winning captains. Edward Forrest (1894), Louis Magee (1899), Karl Mullen (1948 and 1949) and Ciaran Fitzgerald (1982 and 1985) did not know the pressures and pleasures of professional rugby. "It's a different landscape," said O'Sullivan, when asked if last-minute substitutions were cheapening the currency of the Test cap. "We have to change our mindset about this. You'll get the caps sooner now, but you won't be around for as long as before."

The effect of this new landscape is that eight of Ireland's top 25 cap-winners are in this afternoon's match squad. Malcolm O'Kelly's 64th cap hoists him above Willie John McBride, with only Mike Gibson (69) ahead of him. Notwithstanding O'Sullivan's words of warning, most of the current side should be around for the 2007 World Cup. A third post-war golden era for the Irish need not be the stuff of a Wellsian imagination.

Scotland's problems belong to the short term, including a seemingly serial inability to field a settled back row. Cameron Mather cried off yesterday with the chest and shoulder injuries he picked up in the first half of the dispiriting 31-0 loss at home to France last Sunday. Williams, formerly the coach of Leinster and Ireland A, will need more than local knowledge to spike some familiar guns. "In terms of confidence, obviously, we're not bubbling," the Australian said.

Ireland make two changes to the side which beat Italy 19-3 in a gale here a week ago. Munster's David Wallace, a seriously pacy flanker, replaces Keith Gleeson, who sustained a broken arm against the Italians. Paul O'Connell returns to the second row after recovering from bruised ribs.

In the modern way, the field will be ringed at the final whistle with fluorescent yellow jackets, reducing the likelihood of O'Driscoll being chaired high by revellers from every corner of the four proud provinces. If all goes well, or even Wells, a lap of honour will do just as nicely.

Comments