Time spent on reconnaissance being seldom wasted, as the old military saying has it, the decision to look in on RTÉ's coverage at the start, three hours before kickoff, proves gratifyingly fruitful for intro-writing purposes. The panel are out there on the sacred sod and reflecting on what Tom McGurk terms "the Croke Park years" – all four of them. The years, not the panel.
George Hook declaims in suitably magniloquent (my Merriam-Webster email Word of the Day the other morning) tones about the enhanced national maturity that accrued from the GAA's decision to allow in the egg-chasers and how this team has cheered us up immensely during a time of national gloom. Brent Pope muses that rugby wasn't that big a game when he came to Ireland but is now "huge". Conor O'Shea declares that it's been a pleasure to have been spectating in Croke Park during such a golden era.
Pop sociologists love to assert that the Celtic Tiger originated partly in the success of the Irish soccer team under Jack Charlton. For a moment one wonders if Tom will be sufficiently undiplomatic to hop a ball about the success of the Irish rugby team under Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney providing a requiem for, if not downright causing, the demise of said animal.
If nothing else it'd make a change from blaming Bertie, Brian and those lads of the Lehmans. For once he's not that rude. The coverage switches to Cardiff and this column switches over to the racing. (And heartfelt thanks to our Déise man for Tranquil Tiger in the 3.35 at Lingfield.)
We switch back just as Brian O'Driscoll rockets over the line for a gorgeously constructed try, even if Johnny Sexton's pass to him looked forward – so forward, George decrees at half-time, it was "nearly in another county". How apt that, in a week that saw Henry Shefflin and Joe Canning grace Croke Park again, rugby's tenure there should finish with a try from the great man. Now is there any way a steeplechase can be arranged for Jones's Road so Ruby Walsh, that other contemporary Irish sporting legend, gets to adorn the place too? Paul McShane's testimonial can probably wait till another day.
No sooner have Ireland taken the lead than Johnnie Beattie hits back with a try for Scotland. Characteristically, the hosts are attempting to run the ball; uncharacteristically, they're making a plethora of unforced errors in the process. "It's frenetic, it's exciting… it's different," Tony Ward remarks.
Ryle Nugent adds that any spectator who'd watched the Scotland-England match last week wouldn't believe it was the same sport. A week is a long time in rugby, you know.
With Scotland 14-7 up, the panel wear long faces at the break. Possibly still not recovered from the trauma of interviewing John McCririck on radio during the week, a deadheat in the windbag stakes if ever there was one, George announces that he's wetting himself. Thank you, sir, what a delightful image. "Not too close to me," Tom shoots back, speaking for the nation.
It is, he posits, Ireland's worst 40 minutes in a long time. Nobody disagrees. Brent diagnoses problems in the Irish lineout as well as in the scrum. Conor advises patience and an abandonment of the insistence on throwing miracle passes. The cavalry may soon be required, the trio agree. It's "pretty close" to the time for Ronan O'Gara to come on and provide the kind of game-management Sexton is as yet unable to.
Soon the time arrives. O'Gara is on and Ireland are pressing. Conor wants to see Leo Cullen on as well, and possibly Shane Jennings also. "That's why you have a squad." Tomás O'Leary slips when collecting from a lineout. It looks as if it's going to be one of those days.
And it is. After Tommy Bowe has scored what looks like a second dubious try for Ireland, Dan Parks nails a late penalty from the touchline. That's that; the better team have won. Ryle sums it up nicely. "We'll depart Croke Park with some magnificent memories. Unfortunately this wasn't one."
Give this man his own testimonial.