It's a little known fact, and one studiously ignored amid the hoopla of the GAA's 125th anniversary celebrations, that Croke Park is a much more interesting part of the world when it has a pantomime villain wandering around the place. You know, someone for the audience to get worked up about, someone to boo and hiss and generally rejoice in his comeuppance when it arrives.
In the 1980s Croker was blessed with several such cartoon baddies, otherwise known as the Meath footballers. (As an aside, when the Meath team of the era have their annual get-togethers do they sit and chat and slaughter pints or do they spend the evening pulling and dragging and poking and belting one another instead, just for old times' sake, like?) In the late 1990s it had Ger Loughnane. These days it has Ryan McMenamin.
But that's the Gah for you. Boggers can't be expected to behave any better, obviously. Mercifully it's different when rugby comes to Croke Park. Nice, well spoken middle-class boys from nice, middle-class homes across six nations. Nobody to root against. Nobody to dislike. No big glowering blackhaired Englishmen who'd insult our president (Gawd bless 'er!) on the red carpet and – oh, hang on a minute, I may have spotted a tiny flaw in my own thesis.
So there he was yesterday. Martin Johnson. Larger than life and twice as wooden. Or, as Will Carling remarked after the first match they played together, "Does it talk?" Our elders and betters inform us that ABEism is a surefire indicator of an irredeemably petty, smallminded and immature nature. Quite – but then again this column (and most of the Tribune sports department, come to think of it) has never pretended to be anything other than petty, smallminded and immature. The presence in Albion's ranks of Martin Johnson, Oliver Cromwell reincarnated, merely renders the task of cheering against them even easier than usual.
Not that there's anything easy about the first half in viewing terms. The hits are monstrous. The kicking – and not just from Ronan O'Gara – would embarrass a junior B Gaelic football team. The entertainment value is negligible. As if to emphasise the pettiness referred to in the preceding paragraph, the only amusement this column manages to derive is from the tautologies of RTÉ's commentary duo. Ryle Nugent talks repeatedly about "forward momentum"; Ralph Keyes refers to a "pre-planned move" by Ireland. So it was planned before it was planned, eh? We knew Declan Kidney was meticulous. We had no idea he was this meticulous. (Look. We warned you we were smallminded.)
Just when we're beginning to wonder if Johnson is away scaring small children somewhere, the camera cuts to the great man in the stand, cursing to himself as an England attack founders. Yet he has little cause to swear by half-time; improbably, given that they've been on the back foot for 35 minutes, the visitors retire on level terms, 3-3. It is, Brent Pope observes, like a match from the pre-professional era (as opposed to the pre-prepared era). George Hook reaches for a boxing metaphor; it's a heavyweight fight of 15 rounds and we've gone seven and a half of them.
What to do? Bring on Gordon D'Arcy, Conor O'Shea suggests. He'll be the man to break into the Colditz that is the English defence. As it turns out, one doesn't need a D'Arcy when one has an O'Driscoll. A delightful drop-goal five minutes into the second half, a try 10 minutes later. Ireland are on their way. Cameraman: please show us Martin Johnson grinding his teeth.