O'Connor puts his head where his heart is

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The Independent Online

He shuffled off near the end almost shame-faced in embarrassment. But as the standing ovation showed, Johnny O'Connor had nothing to reproach himself for, unless it was for not celebrating with enough abandon.

He shuffled off near the end almost shame-faced in embarrassment. But as the standing ovation showed, Johnny O'Connor had nothing to reproach himself for, unless it was for not celebrating with enough abandon.

On the face of it 5ft 11in, and 16st, doesn't add up to a lot, but the almost scrawny-looking Wasps flanker stood as tall as the giants at Lansdowne Road yesterday. As first caps go, O'Connor's was in the upper echelons of the auspicious class. He was a revelation, ferreting out loose ball, snapping at opponents' legs like an irritating Jack Russell and tidying up with the efficiency of a char lady.

Ireland had thought twice about picking him, but no one did more to end one of the worst losing sequences in international rugby than the diminutive flanker. Ireland had lost 15 of their 17 games against the Boks with one drawn, before this.

South Africa could find little or no space to develop their game around the fringes and the Irish back row, in which O'Connor and the No 8, Anthony Foley, excelled, was a big reason for it. On the day that he became the most capped Munster player with a 55th international, Foley strode the Dublin stage with a fierce commitment. This pack cannot be termed Dad's Army veterans after this display, although for sure, players such as Foley, Reggie Corrigan, Shane Byrne and John Hayes are all venerable citizens.

But it was they who laid the barrels of gunpowder which exploded under South Africa's grand slam dream. Lansdowne Road, the oldest international rugby ground in the world, has seen a good few days filled with emotion and drama. But the roar that greeted the referee Paul Honiss's final whistle must have been heard half way across the city. Hats were hurled high in the air and lost forever. Complete strangers embraced one another. Pub landlords all over Dublin were licking their lips at the financial bonanza about to land on their doorsteps.

O'Connor epitomised the qualities with which Ireland undermined South African hopes, playing with his head as much as his heart. The will to win, to stuff what were seen as the insulting words of the South African coach Jake White back down his throat, ran like a river through this Irish side. But faced with the emotion and frustrations which were apparent on a highly charged afternoon, Ireland kept their cool. They never lost sight of their objectives and their focus and concentration never wavered. O'Connor was at the heart of so much that Ireland did, a feisty, competitive little player with a heart that filled his frame.

In such an atmosphere, many past Irish teams would have succumbed to the heat of the moment and lost focus. Not this side. They had a steely look in their eyes as the anthems were belted out and they never lost that intense pride and will to emerge.

South Africa, second best in almost all they did, were largely shut out. They were hopelessly short of precision, straying offside, losing possession and throwing several forward passes in their haste to break the shackles applied so expertly by the Irish defence.

What Ireland proved is that they have matured as a team and now possess the power, pace and levels of concentration to beat any side in the world. With England and France due in Dublin in the forthcoming Six Nations' Championship, could this be the year when Ireland win only their second Grand Slam in more than half a century?

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