Ireland win Grand Slam in Six Nations

The year was 1948 when Ireland last won the Grand Slam of the Six Nations Championship. At this time yesterday, the frustrating era of not fulfilling Ireland’s hopes was almost as long as the Chicago Cubs’s absence from the World Series (i.e. baseball’s Two-Nations championship).

Yesterday, we were privileged to witness Ireland’s moment of rugby glory in our local pub, which was full of Irish fans who lived and died with every change of possession.

For now, all you need to know is that Saturday’s match against Wales, at their stadium in Cardiff, was for Irish rugby the equivalent of the seventh game of a World Series. We arrived a few minutes after the start, and The Pembroke was packed — someone stood on every square foot of the floor.

There are few sports-bars in Dublin’s city-centre, but every pub in our (rugby-oriented) neighbourhood has a few televisions. In The Pembroke, they are arranged in a way that allowed just about everyone to see the action. Their sound system was superb, making the commentary audible above the crowd without blaring, which was important for novices like us.

The first half was nerve-wracking, with no score until the 33rd minute. (Each half is 40 Courtesy erase at flickrminutes, with rare clock stoppages.) Ireland appeared to suffer from their usual malady: penalties that infuriated fans and gave points to their opponents. Wales led at the half, 6-0, although Ireland had controlled the game. There was plenty to cheer, and the crowd cheered for every small success on the field. Still, Ireland had not scored at all.

Not long after halftime, however, the Irish team showed poise and stamina as they slowly ground down Wales until they scored a try. The entire match was hard-fought, well-played and very close, to the final seconds. Ireland constantly held the advantage in territory and possession, but Wales managed to score points quite effectively in the second half.

Time expired with Ireland ahead by two points, but Wales attempting a long-distance kick for a three-point penalty. The kick fell short and our pub went wild. I haven’t seen such joy since Illinois beat Arizona in 2005. Today, the team returned to Dublin for a rapturous welcome.
Courtesy erase at flickr

The Bugle will not attempt to introduce our readers to the rules of rugby — after watching two full seasons of international play, we are just now beginning to understand the fundamentals. (Consider this article from the Irish Times. Irish newspaper coverage is still mostly opaque to us.) Like fans of American football, rugby fans struggle to explain the game to newbies.

Instead, we will concentrate on the panoply of titles that can be during a single competition among just six teams: the annual Six Nations Championship. The competitors are the national teams of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales.

To win the Six Nations Championship, and thus become the de-facto champion of European rugby union, a team must earn the most points in a single round-robin schedule. (Two points for a win and one for a draw.)

To win a Grand Slam, a team must defeat all five opponents in the schedule. In the 82 eligible championships since 1908, a team has achieved a Grand Slam 35 times — most often England, Wales, or France. Ireland did it this year: they defeated all their European opponents in 2009.

To win a Triple Crown, one of the original Home Nations teams (England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) must defeat the other three. This accomplishment is a matter of great pride, but having a “Triple Crown year” is like being “Divisional Champions” in Major League Baseball. A good year, but not a great one. Ireland last won this competition in 2007, when France beat Ireland in February and won the Six Nations on points.

Our first rugby match at The Pembroke was the second 2007 meeting of Ireland and France, in September, when Irish fans were already despondent over being in the Pool of Death and then watched France lay waste to their team.

There are no unhappy Irish rugby fans tonight.

(Thanks to erase at flickr for the two photos under a Creative Commons license.)