x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Ireland's success left all smiling

The team from the Emerald Isle dominated the Brian O'Driscoll reached new heights as captain, leading his country to a first Grand Slam in 61 years.

Brian O'Driscoll lifts the Six Nations trophy to cap a memorable year of success for the Ireland captain.
Brian O'Driscoll lifts the Six Nations trophy to cap a memorable year of success for the Ireland captain.

Having gone without a Grand Slam since 1948, it was pretty obvious Ireland's rugby union team had been missing something. Something a bit different. Someone with the X-Factor, or someone else, at least, to help out the evergreen Brian O'Driscoll, who clearly has more X-Factor in one finger than Susan Boyle and Leona Lewis have in their bodies combined. Step forward Jamie Heaslip, the multi-talented No 8 with "look-at-me" boots and a penchant for football-style try-celebrations.

By the end of the year the Leinster back-row forward had to his name a Heineken Cup winner's medal, three British & Irish Lions caps, a nomination for the IRB World Player of the Year award, as well as that elusive Grand Slam crown. Aged 25, Heaslip has already had a taste of success. Now he wants more. Much more. "Why can't we do such things?" he commented recently, when asked to contemplate Ireland's chances of lifting the World Cup in 2011.

"Why can't we win three or four more Grand Slams? I definitely think if we keep taking these baby-steps and take ownership of the game-plan, we can be competitive in two years' time [in New Zealand]. If you don't see yourself doing it, I don't think you will do it." With 2009 also being the come-of-age for the likes of Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton, and O'Driscoll reaching greater heights of his own, talk of an Irish World Cup tilt is not as outlandish a statement as it once might have seemed. Of Europe's top six nations, Wales had started the year as the best credentialled side. Yet they had to file in behind the Irish after a spate of injuries and a last-gasp penalty miss by their fly-half, Stephen Jones, in the Six Nations finale cost them their title.

That Ireland owned northern hemisphere rugby this year was beyond any doubt when Leinster carried off the Heineken Cup for the first time with a final win over Leicester. They were reliant on a little bit of outside help, however. The Australian flanker, Rocky Elsom, provided the grunt required to turn a province regarded by their critics as underachieving fancy dans into the champions of the continent.

Elsom's take on Leinster's transformation was typical of a back-row forward. "They were called 'lady boys' a lot over there and that seemed a bit harsh," he reflected upon his return to the UK for the autumn series, where he had been selected to captain his country for the first time. O'Driscoll, who was finally earning the type of team success that is commensurate with his personal talent, was more effusive in response.

"He is the best player I have ever played with," he said of Elsom. Fate had seemed certain to dictate that London Irish would win the Guinness Premiership in England for the first time, given that the folks back home had a monopoly on all the other silverware going. And with Steffon and Delon Armitage, the two Trinidad-born brothers who were providing a ray of Caribbean sunshine to an otherwise bleak winter for England, leading the charge, the Exiles did make it to the final.

There in wait were Leicester Tigers, a club who are the epitome of the forward-dominated game which is supposed to characterise English rugby, and the antidote to the free-running Irish. That the Tigers had made the final at all when they were beset by coaching problems was a triumph for their famously dogged spirit. Heyneke Meyer, the South African coach, had resigned after just 26 weeks at the club, having already spent an extended leave of absence in Pretoria because of a family illness. Later in the year, he turned up at the Blue Bulls, in a newly created role as the executive in charge of coaching.

Richard Cockerill, the former front-rower who is a Leicester stalwart, had only just been confirmed as the new head coach when the Twickenham final took place. He would have enjoyed nothing more than the mode of victory over Irish, and the 10-9 scoreline. Fittingly, Leicester's captain in the absence of the injured - and now retired - Martin Corry was the darling of Welford Road, Geordan Murphy. That he, too, is an Irishman proved that everything that glistened in 2009 was, in fact, green.