Page last updated at 08:33 GMT, Sunday, 22 March 2009

Ending six decades of dashed hopes

By Mark Simpson
Ireland correspondent, BBC News, in Belfast

Victorious Ireland team
The Grand Slam victory ended a 61-year wait for Irish rugby fans

With Irish rugby fans still celebrating a dramatic 17-15 win over Wales which captured a Six Nations first Grand Slam for 61 years, BBC News relives an unforgettable day which united the nation and revived flagging public spirits.

Many people in Ireland are waking up not just with a huge hangover but a genuine feeling of shock.

It has been a depressing time north and south of the border in recent weeks, and when Wales were awarded a last-minute penalty in the Six Nations decider in Cardiff, the mood was one of resignation.

So much so that when the kick fell short, there was a moment of stunned disbelief before the euphoria broke out.

The joy was then felt in bars and living rooms from Lisburn to Limerick, from Coleraine to Cork.

An intriguing insight into the mindset of long-suffering Irish rugby fans was found inside the "gents" at Harlequins Rugby Club in Belfast, even before the match began.

It was like the night Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the final black in the world snooker final - only more dramatic

It was just before kick-off, and last-minute preparations were being made for 80 minutes of rugby and drinking.

"You know what's going to happen, we're going to choke again today," said one pessimistic fan.

Everyone else at the urinals agreed. For 61 years, Ireland had been waiting for a Grand Slam.

Four times previously, the team had gone into the final match unbeaten and then fallen at the final hurdle.

"Here we go again," said Mr Pessimistic. "I really can't see us beating the Welsh in Cardiff."

Then came a shout from one of the cubicles - "Rubbish".

Everyone laughed. Once the eternal optimist came out of the cubicle, a good-natured sporting argument broke out about Ireland's prospects.


The consensus seemed to be that another glorious failure was on the cards but the man from the cubicle was adamant that success was assured. In Irish rugby, there is no border.

The division is simply between the optimists and the pessimists. The sport is played on an all-island, cross-community basis - Catholics and Protestants united by the shamrock and the green shirt.

It has always been that way. In spite of the competition for young talent with Gaelic sports, Ireland currently play their home matches at the 82,000-seater Croke Park, the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

The home of Irish rugby, Lansdowne Road, is being reconstructed and will re-open in the summer of next year.

The bad news for rugby fans is that its capacity is only 50,000. At times like this, however, it is worth remembering that it is only a game.

John Hayes celebrates
Most fans could not remember Ireland's last Grand Slam title
In recent months, Ireland has been battered by a deep economic recession, with hundreds losing their jobs every week.

Whatever the rising interest in rugby tickets, affordability will be an issue too.

In Northern Ireland, the public mood has been damaged recently by the re-emergence of violence, and the death of two soldiers and a policeman.

Ireland has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons but the all-conquering Irish rugby team has spread some good news.

At Harlequins Rugby Club in Belfast, the fans could hardly believe it, as Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll finally lifted the Six Nations trophy.

"It was like the night Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the final black in the world snooker final - only more dramatic," said one veteran sports anorak.

That was in 1985. Few, if any, in the club could remember 1948, when Ireland last won rugby's Grand Slam.

However, a new year has entered Irish sporting folklore - 2009. That was the year that Ireland proved the doubters wrong and won the Triple Crown, Six Nations Championship and the Grand Slam.

Many people thought they could never do it but the man in the cubicle with the colourful language was right after all.

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