Fan­tasy fi­nale to a won­der­ful jour­ney

Sch­midt’s he­roes gave us more than we could have dreamed of in a per­fect de­noue­ment

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - EA­MONN SWEENEY

IT doesn’t get any bet­ter than this. We fan­ta­sised all week about what it might feel like to see Ire­land com­plete a Grand Slam against Eng­land in Twick­en­ham. And you know what? The wildest and most op­ti­mistic of those fan­tasies couldn’t com­pete with the re­al­ity.

Ire­land didn’t just cope with the pres­sure and the hype, they thrived on them. This was the best per­for­mance of this Grand Slam year. The first 40 min­utes may well have been the best half of rugby ever pro­duced by an Ir­ish team. The sec­ond half was a study in courage, the most dis­ci­plined of de­fen­sive dis­plays cash­ing the cheque writ­ten by the at­tack­ing bril­liance of the first.

It’s so strange to think that this Six Na­tions cam­paign only be­gan six weeks ago. Be­cause it feels as though we’ve been on quite the jour­ney with this team. Has there been a more sat­is­fy­ing Ir­ish rugby sea­son? Or a more res­o­nant fi­nale?

Prob­a­bly not. This is, af­ter all, only the third Grand Slam in Ir­ish rugby his­tory. Nei­ther of the other two, mas­sive achieve­ments though they were, pos­sessed such a per­fect de­noue­ment. Vic­to­ries over Eng­land in any sport al­ways touch a spe­cial chord in the Ir­ish heart but this one may have been our most sig­nif­i­cant.

Ire­land struck with deadly pre­ci­sion in the first half and soaked up the pres­sure in the sec­ond. Ev­ery­thing they did was marked by pas­sion and in­tel­li­gence in equal mea­sure. Once more we were left to marvel by this team’s abil­ity to al­ways find some­thing ex­tra.

Rob Kear­ney, rock-like in de­fence, leap­ing to force An­thony Wat­son into the er­ror for the first try, has been a rev­e­la­tion in his last two out­ings, a man re­cap­tur­ing and re­dou­bling the hunger which seemed to have van­ished from his game. Keith Earls is an­other re­nais­sance man; but for his catch in the fi­nal sec­onds against France the sea­son might have un­folded very dif­fer­ently. Last week Garry Rin­grose showed us his fleet­ness of foot, this week he was all fire, twice strip­ping the ball away from English play­ers when a try seemed on for the home team. Bundee Aki’s burst for­ward and per­fect trans­fer to CJ Stander marked the mo­ment when the tide turned con­clu­sively Ire­land’s way yes­ter­day.

And the boy Ja­cob? What can you say? That third try, his record breaker, was like one of those Messi goals con­jured by in­di­vid­ual in­spi­ra­tion and im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Stock­dale chipped ahead, he fol­lowed, he shook off two English play­ers try­ing to foul him like a fox rid­ding him­self of hounds and he stretched out a big hand to touch the ball down inches be­fore it ex­ited the field of play. Mir­a­cles are his busi­ness.

Not for the first time Johnny Sex­ton was bashed and bat­tered and not for the first time he over­came it. The teas­ing upand-un­der which led to the first try was a re­minder of which coun­try in­vented the Gar­ry­owen. In the first half you could hear the English keep up a cho­rus of ‘Mur­ray, Mur­ray, Mur­ray,’ the in­ten­tion be­hind which was pretty ob­vi­ous when Chris Rob­shaw landed a late shot on our num­ber nine. Yet you sus­pect it was mu­sic to the ears of the world’s best scrum-half. If you want an im­age of the fo­cus and in­tel­li­gence which an­i­mated Ire­land’s 2018 per­for­mances, think of Mur­ray calmly rolling his foot over the ball, weigh­ing up his op­tions be­fore in­vari­ably se­lect­ing the right one.

Tadhg Fur­long is a greedy young man. Not con­tented with be­ing the best tight­head prop in the world, he de­cided to moon­light as a cen­tre, pro­duc­ing the most del­i­cate of touches to send Aki away on that sec­ond try run. We used to won­der who would pro­vide the sub­tlety in the Ir­ish mid­field when Darcy and O’Driscoll were gone; I don’t be­lieve any­one sug­gested it might be a mem­ber of the front row. Rory Best hit his darts, made his tack­les and cop­per-fas­tened his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the great­est lead­ers Ir­ish sport has seen. Cian Healy took Kyle Sinck­ler to school and is an­other man prov­ing that there are sec­ond acts in Ir­ish sport­ing lives.

When I see James Ryan play I think of the Greek leg­end telling how the war god­dess Athena sprung fully grown and fully armed from the head of Zeus. A mere stripling in terms of se­nior let alone in­ter­na­tional rugby, Ryan seems to have packed a decade’s worth of grow­ing up into a hand­ful of games. Time and again he drove English op­po­si­tion back in the col­li­sion. His ap­petite for both work and re­spon­si­bil­ity is phe­nom­e­nal. As is that of Iain Hen­der­son, whose abil­ity at the break­down drove Eng­land to dis­trac­tion.

It has been the year of un­likely he­roes. Had Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier not been in­jured, it’s un­likely that Dan Leavy would have got his shot this year. Yet once more he set the tone from the start yes­ter­day, like Ryan a young man tri­umph­ing in the most fe­ro­cious phys­i­cal ex­changes against an op­po­si­tion noted for their power in those ar­eas. Pe­ter O’Ma­hony’s li­ne­out work was in­valu­able, his graft and grit else­where per­haps only fully ap­pre­ci­ated by those who know ex­actly what goes on in ar­eas of the field not fully ex­posed to sun­light.

And Stander, whose reach for the base of the post was like a metaphor for this team stretch­ing out to touch their des­tiny and who will never ever tire of mak­ing hard yards and tak­ing pun­ish­ment?

If that man hasn’t earned Ir­ish na­tion­al­ity I don’t know who has. Wasn’t Pa­trick him­self an im­mi­grant, brought to Ire­land as a Pro­ject Saint?

The subs too played their part. Sean Cronin’s try sav­ing tackle on Mike Brown three min­utes from time put the thing to bed, Joey Car­bery’s am­bi­tion and con­fi­dence were in­stru­men­tal in that third try, An­drew Porter made one big tackle, Jor­dan Lar­mour made two and hinted tan­ta­lis­ingly at what he’ll do when his day dawns in full.

Thank you lads. You gave us more than we could have dreamed of. This is heaven.

Wasn’t Pa­trick an im­mi­grant, brought here as a Pro­ject Saint?

Ire­land’s Dan Leavy looks to break free of the English de­fence in Twick­en­ham yes­ter­day. Photo: Gerry Mooney

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