Roy Curtis: Ireland's Beautiful Band of Brothers
SOMETIMES it comes down to simple, primal, beautiful things: The dimensions of a man’s heart, the acreage of character residing within a warrior’s ribcage, the we-shall-not bow defiance that elevates, defines, makes transcendent, a band of brothers.
Ian Madigan dissolved in a Niagara of emotion at the final ceasefire; it was the first time on a tumultuous afternoon for the ages a gladiator in green softened.
Even then the Dubliner, exceptional after being parachuted into the biggest game of his life after Jonathan Sexton was cut down, spoke for the nation.
Madigan, with his unforgettable emotional overload, became a weathervane for 32 counties, a mirror to the soul of every last citizen.
On days like – raw, fervent, tear-jerking afternoons that transport the audience to a magical land,- you can only feel blessed, favoured by the gods to be alive.
If the courage of the score of men who filled this Welsh battlefield with their perspiration was transformed into precious metal, Ireland, overnight, would be the wealthiest nation on earth.
Ecstasy, though, is a superior, substitute affluence in the aftermath of this spellbinding, life-affirming gift from the sporting heavens.
The Millennium Stadium was transformed into a launching pad carrying Ireland to another universe of achievement, to a distant planet called Delirium.
Like bloodhounds refusing to surrender a scent, they kept going even as their lungs burned, tracking the great prize called William Webb Ellis.
It lasted a little over 80 frenzied, furious minutes, but in that tumultuous eye-blink, the nation hurtled through all four seasons of the emotional calendar.
And somehow Joe Schmidt’s side defied terrible odds.
Ransacked of Johnny Sexton, divested of Paul O’Connell, then later stripped of Peter O’Mahony Ireland reached down and found qualities that only the most special human beings, superior pails of fortitude, can locate.
Sexton departed in a torrent of distress, unable to dam his desolation, the day all his life had built towards stolen from him within 25 minutes.
The sense of disarray deepened into a hopeless chasm at half-time as O’Connell exited on a stretcher, a felled oak, his right leg reduced to a flailing, useless thing after it buckled at yet another turbulent breakdown collision.
In a distressing cameo, the captain sought to clamber to his feet; but like a stricken horse flailing on the Cheltenham turf, his limb refused his order.
Half-time and Ireland had lost their twin commanders-in-chief, surely a crippling blow to the emerald psyche.
Though Ireland led 9-6, the full-stop of defeat now seemed inevitable.
Yet thieved of their leviathan leaders, confronted by all that Gallic ferocity, still from Schmidt’s side came magnificent defiance, a refusal to yield.
It was a glorious thing to behold.
O’Mahony, was an uncontainable missile of exuberance; Rob Henshaw had no mortar board on his head, but this was a graduation, a coming of age; Rob Kearney unveiled the bearing and instinct of a born champion; Sean O’Brien - who, sadly, may now be cited - stepped onto the bridge and assumed confident, unbending command.
Tommy Bowe, Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best took hold of the contest and simply refused to loosen their grip.
The sound and the fury in the sealed bear-pit was thunderous, ear-splitting, an audience recognising a team taking heroism to a new dimension.
The massed green support became a winch carrying Ireland to ever new heights; lusty backing vocalists to the spent yet still straining lead men.
When, at the end of a sustained Irish assault Rob Kearney bounced off Freddy Michalak and bulldozed into that land of milk and honey beyond the French line, the Millennium ceased to be an arena and was transformed instead into an erupting volcano of sound. Cardiff had morphed into Bedlam Central.
The claustrophobic tumult, the absence of oxygen, made the mere act of breathing a near impossible task.
Iain Henderson, with telling support from Devin Toner, inherited the uniform of O’Connell and found them to be a perfect fit.
Henderson is a force of nature, a cold-blooded enabler, a 22-year-old already elbowing his way into the pantheon of great players.
A little over 20 minutes remained and Ireland were now citizens of an island of hope.
But then O’Mahony, having relegated Mel Gibson’s effort to the second greatest portrayal of William Wallace over the previous hour, joined the growing list of the fallen.
Stripped of their eternal captain, their playmaker and now their Braveheart, how could Ireland possibly make it to the finishing line?
The answer, by summoning something otherworldly, by locating a touch of divinity, by driving, driving until Conor Murray landed the killer blow.
France had been open about their malicious intent to come at Ireland with ungovernable fury, to summon the dark side of The Force.
Even a light sabre doesn’t seem so formidable a deterrent when confronted by Matthieu Bastareaud, the snorting beast of Toulon, the petrifying emblem of Phillipe Saint Andre’s monstrously feral, viscerally brutal Gallic wrecking ball.
Or when Louis Picamoles, a study in controlled violence, comes rampaging out of the shadows to make a killing hit.
What doubts, then, assailed the thoughts of Ireland’s Jedi Knight, Johnny Sexton on this career-shaping afternoon?
Sexton is brave, recklessly so perhaps, a fearless, driven gladiator who has taken enough blows to the head to qualify for a neurosurgical loyalty card.
This time it would be a jolting torpedo to the midriff from the immense, savage, magnificent Picamoles that folded Johnny in an afternoon-shortening
For Keith Earls too, conceding fully 32 kilos to the midfield brute and another primary target of the merciless French bludgeon, the first task was to contemplate physical Armageddon yet refuse mentally to buckle.
As the then Cassius Clay admitted after facing the ferocious Sonny Liston in 1964: “I won’t lie, I was scared…it frightened me, just knowing how hard he hit. But I didn’t have no choice but to go out and fight.”
That Clay – later Muhammad Ali – won, derailing the terrifying Night Train, was an inspirational reminder that wit and accuracy can overcome brute power.
It can only happen through special qualities, the capacity to deliver under the most suffocating pressure, to shoulder the tonnage of national expectation, to eyeball the great foe called stress and somehow not fold.
To be undaunted by the possibility of a life-defining afternoon being thieved by fate.
Here, if it was ever in doubt, Ireland illustrated that they draw from a bottomless reservoir of this fortitude, this pluck, this diamond bravery.
Perhaps the catastrophic catalogue of injuries will undo Schmidt’s side, maybe they won’t make it all the way to the mountain top.
But they reached even higher ground here, the summit of human courage, special men planting their flag in a blessed place.