And so the French came to Dublin, cocky and sure of themselves with their own fancy language. They sang their National Anthem with pride and it echoed loudly around the Aviva Stadium. We the Irish, then stood tall and listened to the army and Garda bands belt out the starting notes or our National Anthem.
The French supporters in front of me nudged each other and pointed, they seemed confused that there was a need to put the words up on the big screen. They stood and respected our turn to sing. A quiet murmur filled the stadium, not exactly the hair standing on the back of your neck type of thing. When our tame effort at singing out nations song finished, the afore mentioned French fans, replaced their berets and turned to shake my hand, ‘best of luck’, they said and were about to sit down, when the band started up again. More confused looks, ‘one more’, I tried to explain. Berets removed again and more pointing at the big screen. ‘Ireland, Ireland’, the only recognisable part of the song that could be heard, the rest of the words, lost in the wind. They again turned to me, this time with berets in hand, gesturing as to whether it was ok to sit down this time.
‘This is how we picture Ireland’, the Frenchman said as he pointed skywards. I followed his eyes, upwards and saw the grey sky, dark, gloomy and no sign of any breaks. I nodded in agreement, ‘yes, this is Ireland’, I said. ‘It once rained here for forty days and forty nights’, I continued, ‘then it became persistent’. The bleakness in the sky was forgotten quickly, as Ireland started with confidence and in what seemed like no time at all, eleven minutes actually, they were patting Jamie Heaslip on the head, congratulating his fine try score.
Paddy Jackson took the ball and placed it on his kicking tee. In among his team mates, Jackson looks the part, a rugby player. Standing there, isolated, he looks as I heard somewhere today, like a kid that got his place on the team after winning a colouring competition. The crowd held their collective breaths, memories of the Scottish game fresh, Paddy kicks, the flags go up along with the cheers. It was a ‘fair play to ya Paddy’, kind of cheer. We all would have went out and hugged him, if we could.
The Irish were much improved on their last performance, Paddy Jackson stood up to the plate and landed two monster penalties out of three. The French fans in front of me hissed in disgust as they watched, their out-half, Michalak, missed two very kickable penalties, one just before half-time, much to our relief. The sky got darker during half time and the teams return to the pitch was greeted with an ever increasing downpour.
The score was Ireland 13 France 3. The French, more physical in the second half, eventually kicked a penalty to make it 13-6. Their supporters seemed happier with this and their chant of ‘allez les Bleus’ embarrassingly quietened the home crowd into just background noise again.
The Irish played the next twenty minutes or so like a team that were five or six scores in front. The urgency of their first half performance, now replaced with a burdened, heavy legged look. The French threatened and were repelled, they came again and again, finally the ball crossed the Irish line, Picamoles, the man that carried it over. And so it was left to Michalak to convert and bring the teams level. He obliged without fuss, the French supporters again on their feet, ‘Alez les Bleus’.
It was over, a draw. If either team had started the championship with better results, the draw would have been very disappointing. Instead, the players just shrugged their shoulders, shook hands and went their different ways. The French men in front of me, turned and shook hands with me, thanked me for our Irish weather and disappeared into the departing crowd, showing off with their bi-lingual ability.
I think back now and I’m nearly sure, as we were looking at the words on the big screen, one of the French men was singing Amhran na bhFiann in full voice. And so a memorable day came to an end, but probably the quote of the day, came from a man a row or two behind me. A knock on from Fergus McFadden was greeted with a deep Dublin accent, ‘ya should’ve stayed with Westlife’. In all dark clouds we can see a silver lining.