Brian O'Driscoll holds aloft the Six Nations Championship trophy

Brian O'Driscoll holds aloft the Six Nations Championship trophy

It was an orange rugby ball, made from thick plastic. If you kicked it on either of its pointed ends, your foot throbbed.

If you kicked it often enough on either pointed end you ran the risk of cracking that sheath of skin above your toes. So when you kicked it, you did your damnest to kick it ‘on the meat’.

There was some sand at the gable end of the house, and when there were no grown-ups around, you got a handful of the sand and you placed the ball delicately atop the sedimentary pile on the back lawn.

Looking towards the ‘goal’ – the pump house in the middle of the front lawn – you closed your eyes and imagined.

Imagined you were in a green jersey numbered 10. Imagined you were Ollie Campbell or Michael Kiernan in front of 50,000 people in Lansdowne Road.

You stepped back from the mounded ball, and just as Campbell and Kiernan did, with no great foot-adjusting fanfare and then you strode forward, biting your tongue in determination and kicked.

Up it went, rotating through the air, rarely in a graceful manner as you heard Fred Cogley’s commentary running through your head.

“It’s on its way,” Fred would tell you. “It’s over!” You clenched a fist, safe in the knowledge that your trusty right boot had led Ireland to another famous victory.

Of course, more often than not it didn’t fly over, but those few precious, wonderful, magically accurate kicks with an orange rugby ball labelled ‘Grand Slam’ were precious childhood moments.

They helped fuel a passion for sport that has lasted a lifetime and brought so much sunshine, so much joy and so much satisfaction to countless thousands of Irish kids of your generation.

As the Neil Diamond backing track on those mid-80’s RTE compilations told us, what a beautiful noise Doyler’s men made.

Now a new generation of Irish rugby fans have wonderful heroes of their own whom they’ll seek to emulate in their back yard, at school and on the training fields of Éireann. A whole new beautiful noise all of their own.

Many of them will now believe that they too can grow up to be like Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara and become part of a Six Nations winning team, claim a Grand Slam, seize a Triple Crown. And why the hell not?

There is little that can emotionally outweigh those stunning, heart-stopping, nerve shredding final moments in the Millennium Stadium last Saturday.

The McCarthy Cup crossing the Rice Bridge is probably the only scenario that could mean more from this particular parochial perspective.

Because this was utterly, absolutely, completely mindblowing stuff, compelling from the off and stunning in its conclusion. It could not have been scripted better.

But this long-awaited, jubilant, glorious win, the first time Ireland had brought the whole kit and caboodle home since 1948, has proven a wondrous antidote to the economic doom and gloom of recent times.

And this was a victory for everybody, as Declan Kidney, surely the finest trainer of men this country has ever produced, proferred in his post-match comments.

This was a victory not just for everyone brought up in the rugby tradition. This means something for any honourable, driven Irish person irrespective of their vocation, who has experienced the hardest of times but seen them off and come out the other side.

Rarely, in any walk of life, do we get what we want handed to us on a plate. You crawl out of the scratcher every day, you knuckle down and you work as hard as you can.

And if you’re a dreamer, if you’ve got a goal in life, you keep believing day in day out that one day you’ll run faster, you’ll jump higher, you’ll kick better. You’ll win.

Ten years ago, in the Stade Felix Bollaert, on a night almost as ignominious for Irish rugby as Saipan was for Irish soccer, the roof fell in on the union game on this island.

Humbled by Argentina in the World Cup during an era when defeats to Samoa and Italy were not unknown, Ireland found itself the cast-offs of the established set of rugby playing nations.

But a year earlier, a totally unexpected success, masterminded by a Cork teacher, brought with it the prospect of better times and greater things to come.

An Irish Under-19 team, featuring Brian O’Driscoll, Donncha O’Callaghan and Paddy Wallace, became world champions, the first such global success by any Irish field sport team.

Under the watch of Declan Kidney, what had been considered impossible proved anything but. It would not be the last time such a sentiment would apply to a team under his watch.

A short time later, though not considered during the selection process as the leading contender for the job (just as he was with the IRFU last year), Kidney assumed the reins at Munster.

The rest, as we know in the case of that particular team, makes for magnificent history, as Kidney, this deliverer of dreams, brought the Heineken-soaked bacon home twice.

Eighteen months ago, another World Cup defeat on French soil to Argentina brought the wheel full circle for Irish rugby, at least in terms of Eddie O’Sullivan’s evolution of the team.

Too much time beefing up in the gym and not enough time enjoying their ballwork or some escapism from the grind of preparation sowed the seeds of another disaster in the global showpiece.

A team that had, just months earlier come within seconds of a Six Nations title, came perilously close to losing to both Namibia and Georgia.

Defeats to France and the Pumas had us on an earlier than expected plane home from La Belle France, but O’Sullivan had a four-year contract extension already in his arse pocket.

The sense that (a) the IRFU’s timing couldn’t have been worse when it came to negotiating and (b) that O’Sullivan, the most successful coach we’ve ever had, had taken the team as far as he could, was unavoidable.

Last year’s Six Nations campaign was the proof of that particular pudding, as the malaise of the World Cup proved impossible to shake off, the writing on the wall outweighing any inked contract. O’Sullivan walked and Kidney, eventually, came in.

From the off, it was clear that things were going to be different under the new head coach. A manager (Paul McNaughton) was re-introduced to the set-up, offering the players a badly needed additional set of ears to seek out during training camp.

The best specialised coaching team that Kidney could recruit duly followed. Gert Smal, a member of South Africa’s World Cup-winning coaching staff, donned a different green jersey as forwards coach.

Les Kiss was also added to the crew as defensive coach, with Alan Gaffney, uniquely disposed to working with both Leinster and Munster players, brought in as backs coach.

The sense that Kidney would act as a chairman, following the perceived empirical run O’Sullivan set off on during his time in the hotseat, was unavoidable.

New players, such as Keith Earls, Robert Kearney and Stephen Ferris were brought into the fold last autumn.

Fresh faces and new voices brought renewed enthusiasm into the group, with Kidney’s decision to stick with Brian O’Driscoll as captain now widely hailed as a masterstroke.

To see players winning their first senior caps, something which hadn’t happened all too often in the final years of the O’Sullivan era, felt oddly novel.

But it wasn’t as if all the roses in the garden were blooming from the off under the new man. The defeat to the All Blacks was humbling, the quietest and numbed a sold out Croke Park has ever been.

But it was the victory over Argentina a week later, featuring many of the characteristics that would emerge during the Spring series, that hauled Ireland over the finish line.

That it could, in time, prove as vital a result to the team as last Saturday’s victory, can only be ruled upon come the next World Cup in New Zealand.

Much of the rugby produced against the Pumas that day was unspectacular, but no one could deny the work rate of every Irish player.

Ronan O’Gara endured something of an off-day with the kicking tee, but still landed a beautiful crossfield kick into the arms of Tommy Bowe for the deal-sealing second half try.

Ireland had defeated a top eight rugby rival without O’Gara breaking out a magnum load of bubbly stuff. Irish wins lacking the inspiration of a fully-charged ‘Rog’ were rarer than Grand Slams in these parts.

A tone, albeit one we were then largely oblivious to, was being set.

In the months leading up to the Championship, Kidney sounded out his players and not in some piecemeal manner that might generate some good external PR. That’s not the way he operates.

He wanted to know how they felt about the new arrangement and he wanted to know what they felt they could do to bring about a renewed sense of optimism both internally and on the field of play.

Jamie Heaslip, blossoming into a world class number eight, eloquently captured the mood before England’s visit to Croke Park.

“There are open lines of communication,” he said of the new coaching regime. “If there were any problems there before, they are not there any more.

“Everyone’s getting on fine. Everyone’s happy. If someone isn’t happy, there are different routes with regard to how they can bring that up.

“If it’s an issue regarding selection or the way you want to play, there are different routes with regard to how they can bring that up. If they don’t want to create a bad vibe, they can go talk to Deccie [Kidney] directly or senior players or whatever.”

Heaslip’s words were telling, a far cry from the comments pried from bitten lips during the final year under O’Sullivan’s charge.

Kidney has never led a ‘my way or the byway’ type of ship. That’s not the Kidney way. Establishing mutual respect between player and coach has been central to his success story and the success stories of Munster and now Ireland.

He has never sought the limelight. The only time that Kidney’s been spotted in the middle of his players on the pitch has been at the end of a successful campaign when there’s a cup nearby.

Beyond the hyperbole-free comments which have become a post-match staple of his over the past decade, there runs a rod of steel, a determination and a focus which belies his public persona.

He’s a manager, a cajoler, a motivator, a teacher but, perhaps most importantly, Kidney is a believer, with the faith he has invested in his players unwavering.

And they return the faith he invests in them by the bucket-load for 80 dogged, draining minutes.

“When November was over, we sat down,” commented Kidney over the weekend, reflecting on the winter pow-wow.

“I have a brilliant bunch of team leaders, Brian, Rog, Paul, Rory. We sat down with Paul [McNaughton] and we had a good, frank discussion.

“We opened it up, asked the players what they think: ‘Let’s put it out on the table, lads’. It was nothing hugely scientific.

“I’m not saying I’m a management consultant or anything, but it was just saying ‘Let’s be honest with one another now. What are the [wrong] things?’

“You’d be surprised that by talking about it, and a little bit of slagging, all of a sudden a whole lot of doors were opened, and we just have some craic now.”

The faith he has in his players, be they young lads in the colours of Pres in Cork, the red of Munster or the green of Ireland has, time and time again, been proven just.

Though he continuously seeks as little credit as possible, most of our greatest sporting days over the past decade wouldn’t have materialised were it not for his genius, for that is what he is.

Declan Kidney is the anti-Jose Mourinho in many ways. He is a special one in terms the Inter Milan coach could never consider such is the Portuguese man’s sense of self-importance.

In Kidney’s world, it’s all about the team – he’s just a facilitator. Of course the players know and the fans know that he is so much more than that.

The greatest testament to his greatness? A Grand Slam, a Championship, a Triple Crown and two Heineken Cups. What else needs to be said?

Just one thing: To Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary, Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best, Tom Court, Mick O’Driscoll, Denis Leamy, Peter Stringer, Paddy Wallace and Geordan Murphy, thank you.

Thank you for your heart, your courage and your self-belief. Thank you for making us proud of hailing from this little plot on the edge of Europe.

And thanks for giving a whole new generation of kids, in their gardens, with nothing more than a rugby ball, a kicking tee and a dream, something to believe in. What a beautiful noise. Thank you, thank you, thank you.