Well, this wasn't supposed to happen. Of all the scenarios they raised at GAA Congress back when they were debating whether or not to let rugby and soccer play here, nobody raised the spectre of it all ending up some day with 'Flower Of Scotland' ringing around Jones's Road as beefy highlanders did a lap of honour. But that's how it turned out, Scotland arm-wrestling their way to a well-deserved 23-20 win in Croke Park's final rugby match. Tommy Kenoy! Look at what you wrought!
Ah well. Fun while it lasted and all that. Ireland threw the dice here yesterday but paid a high price when their number didn't come up. A cavalier first half during which they tossed the ball around with abandon was followed by an attempted rescue job after the break that just came up short.
The handling errors that stank up the France defeat returned and the normally reliable line-out coughed and spluttered like we hadn't seen in an age. Scotland, who had a kicker in form and a back-row in murderous mood, found themselves ahead when the music stopped. Simple really.
"These guys give every ounce that's in them," said Declan Kidney afterwards. "I couldn't ask for any more. Some days when it goes wrong, it just goes wrong. We made mistakes out there but nobody I know dropped a ball on purpose. Maybe we were trying too hard at some stages. But we're professionals and we won't be making excuses. Our job is to get it right and that's what we'll be working on for the next match."
It had all begun so promisingly. At times in that first half Ireland played as though there was no such thing as an offload too outlandish to attempt, no gap in the play too small to try to squeeze a pass through. It was as if Kidney had been so irritated by the IRB's mid-championship change in refereeing attitudes at the breakdown that he just decided against having breakdowns altogether.
And it was all rather a lark for a while. Everybody got in on the act, from the no-look passes of Geordan Murphy and Tommy Bowe to the pirouettes and side-steps of Keith Earls and Cian Healy. And when it brought the first Irish try after 11 minutes – a Brian O'Driscoll symphony with Johnny Sexton at first violin – it felt like time to settle in for a 40-pointer.
Sexton's conversion – his first of the whole championship – made it 7-3 and Croke Park was having a dabba-doo time.
But we're Irish folk and we're nothing if not fatalistic. We knew this was like watching a tap-dancer on a frozen pond. Keeping the ball alive works both ways – it opens up a world of possibilities for the defending team as well as the attacking one. Sure enough, Cian Healy went on another foray that made good yardage but was left without enough support and Ireland's fever to keep everything moving meant the ball squirted loose and Scotland were away, leading to Johnnie Beattie reaching for the line and touching down.
It put Scotland a point ahead but we all shrugged at the scoreboard. No big deal. The price of doing business. But there were a few nagging problems too.
For one, the line-out that had been solid as a lock-box all championship was suddenly all over the place, Ireland losing more throws than they had in the other four games combined. And Sexton's kicking troubles took up where they left off last week as he kicked two from four.
With Dan Parks missing virtually nothing down the other end, this was a leakage Ireland couldn't afford.
They ditched the can-can routine after half-time. For all the bells and whistled, it brought about a 7-17 deficit. They went old-school, started playing territory, went back to mauling as if the first half had been some sort of drug-induced orgy that nobody would ever speak of again.
Ronan O'Gara replaced Sexton and almost scored a try as Ireland piled on the pressure but was held up short of the line. Bowe soon showed him how it's done over in the other corner and O'Gara's touchline conversion lifted the roof of each stand. Ireland 17 Scotland 17, with 15 minutes on the clock.
Damn Scots wouldn't go away though. Parks kept chipping away and earned his Man-of-the-Match award with a brilliant late kick from the left touchline. It wasn't how we'd imagined it all ending in Croke Park but you had to hand it to them.
Now. Anyone know the way to the Southside?