Ireland conquer Twickenham to join Grand Slam immortals
Schmidt’s men stand tall after first-half blitz
England — Daly 2 tries, May try Ireland — Ringrose, Stander, Stockdale try each; Murray pen, Sexton 2 cons, Carbery con
SHORTLY before the final whistle in Twickenham yesterday you could have been forgiven for thinking that the falling snow was in fact a shower of ticker tape. The scoreline was likely to be amended — and indeed it was — but the game was done. At half time with their team trailing 21-5 many of the England fans had resigned themselves to a bad finish to an unexpectedly poor season. So by the time Jonny May got over in the corner they were already acknowledging the rarity of what had happened here. Before yesterday only five teams had come to Twickenham looking for closure on a Grand Slam. And only one — France in 1982 — had been successful. That now reads six and two.
A crowd of 82,062 — some of them having trudged up from Cheltenham, and more of them having made their way over on the morning of the game — witnessed a decent game of rugby where Ireland were always the better side. And always looked like they knew it.
It takes something to go to this part of the world and wipe out a side who up until very recently reckoned they were almost on a par with the All Blacks. And it takes a bit more to win in circumstances where the team with vastly inferior resources, across the board, can look so assured. That is Joe Schmidt’s great achievement with this squad: they have ridden their luck and coped with injuries and never looked like they didn’t believe it would work out in the end.
So when Peter O’Mahony was binned in the second half and England took full advantage with a try for Elliot Daly, there was no panic. Five minutes earlier they had stretched out to 24-5 with a Conor Murray penalty so there was no sign of panic. And when England badly mismanaged the period in which O’Mahony was off, it was hard to see how the away side could be overtaken.
Leaders? The spine of their side, which has remained almost untouched through the campaign, was outstanding, starting with Rob Kearney at full-back and running through to CJ Stander at number eight. Around that quintet you could not find a player who didn’t front up physically or not deliver on the minutiae of his role. It wasn’t sexy, but it was comprehensive. And the defensive resolve was massive.
In the circumstances a good start carried even more importance for Ireland given where each team was coming from. England were a bit fragile after what happened them in Edinburgh and Paris, while Ireland, as their captain Rory Best conceded in the run-up, were nervous about the scale of the task.
In any case it manifested itself in poor discipline from the home team. They had conceded one penalty fewer than Ireland by the break (that margin was the same at the finish) but that was largely down to a back-pedalling run where Ireland ran up four in a row with O’Mahony paying the price as they tried to keep England out.
Five times in all England went to touch with penalties that could have got them on the board. By the time they did get there, on 32 minutes, Ireland already were 14-0 in front. And even with Daly’s touchdown Ireland would score again for a 21-5 lead at the turnover.
The first 14 points came in instalments on six and 24 minutes. For the first Garry Ringrose, whose stepping always gained him a metre or two, got his hand to a ball that ran loose in England’s in-goal after Anthony Watson had spilled a Johnny Sexton garryowen under pressure from Kearney.
For the second Stander scored off the foot of the post after a classic Schmidt strike play: O’Mahony delivered very well off a four-man lineout; they ran a wrap in midfield with Bundee Aki taking a blind-side pop from Tadhg Furlong, and picking up Stander in support.
And the third? Would you believe it was the try-scoring machine that is Jacob Stockdale. Interestingly this seventh try of the campaign, a Six Nations record, was facilitated by what appeared to be an extended in-goal area, putting it into same general dimension as Murrayfield, which is enormous. Stockdale did well not to knock it on as he chased the spillage from another aerial contest that had gone Ireland’s way. So with Ireland 100 per cent out of touch — the lineout quality wasn’t always first class — and at the scrum, the only real concern was the health of Sexton.
He went off for a HIA six minutes before the break, and while he returned for the second half he clearly had an issue with goal-kicking, needing Murray to nail that shot on the hour mark. By then, however, there were players all over the field putting their hands up looking for work. Frequently Iain Henderson had his hand highest. He had an immense game.
So too did Aki, who was fortunate to concede only a penalty for a high shot on Daly, and his departure — he looked in a heap — robbed Ireland of a go-to man in the gain-line battle. The game finished with replacement scrum-half Kieran Marmion on the wing as the injury toll slowed Ireland to a canter, but even then they didn’t lose composure. Keeping England out until time added on was an achievement in itself. It’s rarely you see players congratulating each other after a try has just been conceded, as it was with May’s score on 83 minutes.
The job was done. It was a typically resolute finish to a remarkable campaign. They will take a while to recover. England: A Watson (M Brown 33); J May, J Joseph (G Ford 56), B Te’o, E Daly; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (D Care 68); M Vunipola (J Marler 53), D Hartley (capt) (J George 58), K Sinckler (D Cole 53), M Itoje, G Kruis, C Robshaw, S Simmonds (D Armand 67), J Haskell.
Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls (K Marmion 74), G Ringrose, B Aki (J Larmour 56), J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery HIA 34-40; 67), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 51), R Best (S Cronin 65), T Furlong (A Porter 64), J Ryan (D Toner 66), I Henderson, P O’Mahony (yc 29-39; J Murphy 74)), CJ Stander, D Leavy.
Referee: A Gardner (Australia)
CJ Stander touches the base of the upright to score Ireland’s second try in the win over England at Twickenham yesterday.