Ir­ish he­roes serene in eye of the storm

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - NEIL FRAN­CIS

AND the re­spon­so­rial psalm is: “Joe is my shep­herd, there is noth­ing I shall want.” There were many things that could have gone wrong yes­ter­day for Ire­land but such is the con­fi­dence of the squad in their coach that vic­tory was the only op­tion open to them.

It was a gritty per­for­mance and Ire­land bled them­selves dry but the coach had them primed to win and the game-plan was ex­e­cuted to a tee.

Again the hu­mil­ity and the grace the New Zealan­der demon­strates time af­ter time shows his ex­em­plar per­son­al­ity and his clar­ity of vi­sion. He is ruth­less too. Vlad the Im­paler is Shirley Tem­ple be­side him in mo­ments of cri­sis. He got it right yes­ter­day and I did not for a mo­ment doubt him nor did his team.

So the na­tion must recog­nise this new crop of he­roes. A Grand Slam is a sin­gu­larly dif­fi­cult quest to achieve and fac­tor in too that there was no last-minute drama or a penalty goal at the death to make the na­tion sweat. I pre­fer to watch the in­ex­orable na­ture of how Ire­land, through sheer will, take hold of a game.

The team de­voted it­self to an idea and the group were serene in the eye of the storm. Hype is one thing, pres­sure to de­liver when you ab­so­lutely have to — when the na­tion ex­pects you to — is an­other mat­ter.

The team play a pre­scrip­tive brand of rugby but ev­ery­body knows what to do in mo­ments of peril and there were quite a num­ber of those yes­ter­day when Eng­land even­tu­ally woke up af­ter their first-half tor­por.

The com­plex­ion of the game changed in the sec­ond half and if you want to quib­ble you could say that Ire­land throt­tled back as they lost the sec­ond half 10-3. But such was Ire­land’s dom­i­nance and their abil­ity to un­hinge Eng­land even in Fortress Twick­en­ham.

Half­way through the first half I thought to my­self, ‘Did you ever stop to think and for­get to start again?’ Ire­land could not cap­i­talise on the mo­men­tum com­ing in af­ter their pre­vi­ous four vic­to­ries and even their per­for­mance in the first half.

I had for once value for money for my ref link to get a grasp of just how bloody-minded Ire­land were. Some time in the sec­ond quar­ter Johnny Sex­ton got a bang to the nose and there was a stream of claret com­ing from his nos­trils. An­gus Gar­diner told him to go off and get him­self cleaned up. Sex­ton turned to him and said, “I’m not leav­ing”.

In a mo­ment such as this it was high farce but Ire­land’s out­half knows how im­por­tant he is to this team and once again ably demon­strated that he is Ire­land’s most in­tel­lec­tual player and with­out doubt the most canny in terms of assess­ing the needs of his team with a game of such mag­ni­tude.

Cham­pi­onships go by and cham­pi­ons come and go. Ro­nan O’Gara did many bril­liant things for Ire­land and he will be re­mem­bered most fondly for ev­ery­thing he has done for his na­tion but yes­ter­day’s win crys­tallises the no­tion that Sex­ton is our best out­half and our most im­por­tant player in his­tory.

Three Heineken Cups, three Six Na­tions and now that has been cop­per-fas­tened with a Grand Slam says it all. There is no dis­put­ing his value or his po­si­tion in the pan­theon of greats and he has no in­ten­tion, I would sug­gest, of stop­ping there.

Yes­ter­day was a con­fir­ma­tion of the qual­ity of foot­ballers and ath­letes that are com­ing through our schools sys­tems. Ire­land have al­ways been com­pet­i­tive at schools level and at un­der-20s. Only re­cently have they had the co­jones to fast-track through that rich seam of qual­ity that only an­nounced it­self in the last few years.

Garry Rin­grose, Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Jor­dan Lar­mour and An­drew Porter all seam­lessly fit­ted in to the dy­namic yes­ter­day and per­formed in the most com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment. They have flour­ished. It is a credit to them.

The ques­tion that now has to be asked is how good is this Ire­land side? The an­swer would be that they would com­pare more than favourably with the 2009 team. This is no more ably demon­strated than with the qual­ity and dis­posal now in the tight five. In truth, yes­ter­day Ire­land were per­fect at tight. They were rock-solid at scrum time and if you want to win here any weak­ness shown in this area will be cru­elly ex­ploited by Eng­land. When Eng­land couldn’t get any pur­chase here, they knew that their goose was cooked.

The other ques­tion we must ask is how good are all the other teams in the com­pe­ti­tion? To win in Paris and Lon­don sug­gests that France and Eng­land are far from their vin­tage sides. There is not much le­git­i­macy in the ques­tion, and I guess to even ask such ques­tions does a dis­ser­vice to Ire­land. Ire­land will go to Aus­tralia this sum­mer and win a Test se­ries in the south­ern hemi­sphere for the first time in 40 years.

As for Eng­land, their op­po­nents yes­ter­day, now is the mo­ment of truth for them. The English rugby team op­er­ates in two states — com­pla­cency and panic — they are now firmly in the lat­ter stage. Dur­ing the year Aus­tralian hook­ing great Phil Kearns said about Ed­die Jones: “He will take Eng­land and shape them and then he will break them.”

Eng­land looked a very tired side yes­ter­day. Their fa­tigue lev­els are there for all to see and their con­fi­dence lev­els at this stage shot. They had many op­por­tu­ni­ties yes­ter­day out wide but once again fa­tigue de­nied them and their pass­ing was to­tally in­ac­cu­rate when it needed to go di­rectly to the man.

If they had been a lit­tle bit more flu­ent in the wide chan­nels, they could have pressed and pres­surised Ire­land. Too many mis­takes, too many balls to ground, too many passes be­hind the man and Ire­land re­cov­ered and kept their shape.

On a bit­terly cold day, Ed­die Jones will need to wrap up warm when he goes to sign on on Mon­day morn­ing.

It has been a sig­na­ture note in Joe Sch­midt’s ten­ure that when his teams per­form no­body plays badly. Once again Ire­land and all their play­ers maxed out on their per­for­mance lev­els and that self-be­lief told ev­ery­body here in Twick­en­ham yes­ter­day that there would be no other out­come to this match and to the con­clu­sion of this cham­pi­onship.

The IRFU spent four mil­lion in their bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. They should for­get all about that and spend €4m on keep­ing Joe Sch­midt in the coun­try so that they can ac­tu­ally win the World Cup as op­posed to just host­ing it.

To yes­ter­day’s play­ers, the coun­try salutes you on a fan­tas­tic achieve­ment.

Con­grat­u­la­tions to all.

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