The Big Picture: The Agony and the Ecstasy The Big Picture

The Big Picture: The Agony and the Ecstasy

So near and yet so far. Top level sport is all about fine margins. It’s the little things that make the difference between winning and losing big games as we saw in Cardiff last weekend.

A rush of blood to the head from Robbie Henshaw ten minutes from the end may just have been the moment when the game slipped beyond Ireland’s reach at the Millennium Stadium last Friday night. For one of just a few instances in the game, the Irish maul was working and looked to be heading straight for the Welsh line with skipper Rory Best and ball in tow. A try seemed a certainty. It would move Ireland to within a point of the Welsh at 15-14 with the conversion to follow. Would this be the moment when all Ireland’s second half pressure would finally pay off? No, it wouldn’t. Enter Robbie Henshaw from stage right who inexplicably joined the fray ahead of Best and was promptly pinged for obstruction. The moment of opportunity had passed and Ireland’s fate was sealed.

That was the big moment when the game got away from us but, in truth, there were plenty of others where our execution let us down when we might have punished the Welsh defence. Knock-ons, forward passes and poor options – the litany of uncharacteristic errors goes on. It was quite surprising for a Joe Schmidt team, but there were simply too many to save the game and Wales deserved their victory in the end. It isn’t the first time Ireland have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and probably won’t be the last.

Looking back on the game, it was a case of fine margins and Ireland came out on the wrong side of them each time and couldn’t recover. The fact that referee Wayne Barnes seemed content to allow the Welsh to go off their feet at every breakdown to prevent clean ball for us and ensure easy possession for them was another factor – but I digress! We didn’t play well enough to win - plain and simple - and there is a lot of work to be done if we are to prevent England from setting a new world record of 19 consecutive test wins at the Aviva on Saturday.

Eddie Jones’s side have already retained the championship and will be looking to secure consecutive grand slams. We had harboured hopes of a winner-takes-all championship showdown, but Cardiff put paid to that and we have little more than pride to play for at this stage. Some players will have their eye on a place on the Lions tour this summer, but the Irish contingent may be somewhat smaller than we might have envisaged in the heady days of Chicago and the victory over Australia last autumn. At least it’s good news for the provinces who may have their big players back a little earlier than expected!

Women chase grand slam glory

While the men’s hopes may have faded for another year, Ireland’s women are firmly in the hunt for grand slam glory following a hard-fought 12-7 victory over Wales in Cardiff Arms Park on Sunday. Hannah Tyrell got the deciding score just after the hour mark after a Lyndsay Peat try and Nora Stapleton conversion had given Ireland a 7-0 advantage at the interval. Following a very heavy defeat to England earlier in the tournament followed by a narrow loss to Scotland last time out, Wales were fired up as they marked the passing of 20-year-old squad member Elli Norkert following a car crash just a fortnight ago. They got themselves back into the game shortly after the break as Shona Powell-Hughes crossed and Robyn Wilkins converted, but Ireland proved too strong in the end. Incidentally, Wayne Barnes might consider taking a few tips from fellow referee Claire Hodnett who managed this game superbly and, unlike her counterpart the day before, penalised players for going off their feet at the breakdown. Watch and learn Wayne!

It all comes down to a grand slam decider against England in Donnybrook on Friday night. Ireland, who are looking for their second slam in four years, will start as underdogs against a very powerful English side who hammered Scotland 64-0 last weekend. Here’s hoping that the luck of the Irish will prevail on St Patrick’s Day!

Allianz Leagues

When it comes to high drama, tension and excitement, hurling rarely fails to deliver. Talk about fine margins or how quickly things can turn, hurling has it in spades. The big game of the weekend was the repeat of last year’s All-Ireland final between Tipperary and Kilkenny at Semple Stadium on Saturday evening. Premier manager Michael Ryan claims he is no fan of hurling played under floodlights, but he can’t have been unhappy with the quality on show here. If I had one complaint, however, it would be that the Semple Stadium ground crew need to invest in a decent lawnmower – that grass was way too long. It could be my poor eyesight but I’m pretty sure the sliotar was almost lost more than once during the course of the game!

Tipp led by eight points at one stage in the first half before Kilkenny slowly clawed their way back with two TJ Reid penalties, the first of which was petty soft for a game of hurling as Michael Cahill was adjudged to have infringed Alan Murphy under a high ball. I’m not sure a soccer ref would have given that one! The Cats took the initiative after Reid’s second penalty 14 minutes from time and were ahead for the first time in the game four minutes from time courtesy of a point from Cillian Buckley who was superb throughout. It was an early season test of character for Ryan’s men after three wins in succession and they weren’t found wanting. Stephen O’Brien levelled the scores and, although both sides missed decent chances to win it, a draw was probably a fair result in the end. Fine margins……

Brian Cody will have been very pleased as his side showed plenty of character and courage to fight back after Tipp threatened to stretch away early on. The Cats desperately needed something from the game and they got it. A loss would have turned their meeting with Dublin at Parnell Park next weekend into a relegation play-off, but they have now earned themselves a bit of breathing space and all the pressure will be on the Metropolitans to win and save themselves.

FA Cup

Rumours that non-league Lincoln City were warned by the FA not to field a weakened team for the game against Arsenal proved unfounded, although they were on the end of a serious pasting at the Emirates last Saturday. Speaking afterwards, unsettled talisman Alexis Sanchez suggested that the 5-0 victory had restored the Gunners’ confidence following their 10-2 aggregate drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Seriously, Alexis, we’re supposed to believe that? Perhaps this is the result that will turn your season around?

The scoreline may have suggested otherwise, but the real victors at the Emirates on Saturday evening were Lincoln, where the late Graham Taylor first made his name, as they became the first club in the modern era to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament. In truth, there weren’t too many fine margins in the FA Cup over the weekend with Tottenham putting six past Millwall and Manchester City easing past Middlesbrough at the Riverside.

The only tie that was in any way competitive was the meeting of Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. However, referee Michael Oliver’s decision to send off Ander Herrera for a second bookable offence late in the first half managed to put the result beyond any reasonable doubt. Once again it was a case of tight margins as Herrera found himself somewhat unluckily dismissed for a succession of fouls committed by his team-mates as United looked to kick Chelsea off the park. Wrong place at the wrong time and United’s fate was sealed, but Herrera really should have been more careful.

It means that we have two great semi-finals to look forward to as Arsenal play Manchester City and Chelsea face Tottenham. No romance of the cup here, no underdogs as four of the top six teams in the country do battle. Can Chelsea do the double in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge? It would be quite a recovery from the debacle of last season, but who would bet against it at this stage? Once again, the margins will be fine…….

Kerry v Dublin

But before that we have the not inconsiderable matter of a meeting between Kerry and Dublin at Fitzgerald Stadium on Saturday evening (eir Sport Xtra 1, Sat, March 18th 18.55). Dublin are unbeaten in 33 games, thus equalling a record set by Kerry in the later 1920s and early 1930s. They could write their name into the history books forever if they can avoid defeat but, if there is one team in the land who would like to stop them, that team is Kerry. It’s a repeat of last year’s league final which Dublin won easily by 2-18 to 0-13, but this looks set to be a much tighter affair. Kerry need a win to stop themselves from being drawn into a relegation battle, so there is plenty at stake for both sides. Could be a tight one…….

Images: Getty/INPHO

There is plenty of great sporting action to enjoy over St Patrick’s Weekend. Go to for more details.

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