Monday, March 19, 2018

ENGLAND-15 IRELAND-24



THE POWER AND THE GLORY

We did it folks!  What a Paddy's Day weekend eh?

Apparently Joe Schmidt wanted none of the spotlight as the celebrations began after the final whistle.  I totally understand that, but it still won't stop me using the opening paragraphs of this writeup to verbally drag him out in front of the cameras.

Succeeding first Michael Cheika and then Declan Kidney in the Irish coaching system were far from easy tasks for any coach, as both Leinster and Ireland had already been brought to heights previously thought unattainable.  

But in Joe we have someone who has his own ideas on how the game should be played, knows how to get his players to believe in them, and as we have seen over the past seven weeks in particular, also knows how to make the right amount of adjustments at both macro and micro levels when things don't quite go to plan.  The only thing more you'd want from a coach to go with all of that is the right set of results and, well, the milestones and trophies just keep on coming.

I probably would have written all of the above even if we had lost on Saturday, but what we saw over the eighty minutes at Twickenham is that not only has this squad completed its latest evolution, there is clearly more to come.

The final try count might have been three apiece, but this tells you nothing about how the match went.  Neither I nor any fellow rugby-god-fearing Irish fan watching as it happened would have thought we had this won before the very end but after looking over the match a second time, there was only ever going to be one winner.  

Even the coin toss went our way.  It actually fell in Dylan Hartley's favour, but I actually think his conceding the opening kickoff was a good thing for Ireland in that it gave us that little bit of extra control we needed to help us settle the nerves as the week-long wait to get going was finally over.

The early exchanges were just as tense as we thought they would be.  Neither side was long in working out that creative ways had to be found through the opposition's tough lines of tacklers.  First to have a go was Elliot Daly who stabbed one through to find touch in our 22, and on their next attack, Owen Farrell planted a more positive grubber straight at Rob Kearney, who was able to recover and clear before the England outhalf made arguably the game's first bad decision as he needlessly gave away a penalty by taking out our fullback.

Suddenly we had our first lineout in an attacking situation.  Everyone who has followed Joe's teams closely over the years knows that he pretty much demands points on the scoreboard from situations like these, so it was just a matter of finding out what play had been decided on to test the English backfield.

When I saw Johnny Sexton shaping to kick just outside the 22 I was amazed...what a gamble at such an early stage.  But clearly the homework had been done to a T, and it was far from an aimless punt into the snowy London skies...the hang time allowed not only for the Irish chasers to be ready, but also for Anthony Watson's nerves to be shot to their maximum capacity.

My own state of mind was such that I wasn't going to cheer any try right away no matter how obvious it looked, so the series of ricochets before it fell over the line to be dived on by Garry Ringrose was certainly holding me back.  Someone near me thought Rob Kearney might have knocked it on in the midst of the jump...as the different angles were being shown on the screen I thought he might have a point but suddenly the TMO was looking only at the grounding so I knew this as the best possible start for Ireland.  No celebrations yet though.

Now things were continuing to go wrong for the English...we'd steal a lineout here, wrap up a maul and force a turnover there, and next we had Farrell booting the ball full into the back of James Haskell's head [not even a suggestion of an HIA???].

Then we start embarking on a more traditional series of phases to advance the ball into an attacking situation, finding a bit of space out wide before Aki took his eye off it for a second and lost it into touch.  But as the twentieth minute approached we still won a penalty right in front.

Rather than take the easy three, we went for what can only have been another move from the training ground...as everyone expected Sexton's kick to sail over the posts, he instead cunningly put it off the upright to throw the English defence into more disarray....

[Hey, so what if I'm taking liberties?  They say history is written by the victors so I'm saying Johnny meant it - sue me 😜]

...and although they cleared it we had another attacking lineout complete with expectations and now it was time for one of many different adaptations of the wrapround we have seen in this championship - on this occasion it was Bundee Aki running what looked like a decoy line when he was actually the intended receiver [does that make it a decoy decoy???]; this bust their defensive line wide open and when it got to CJ Stander I don't think a thousand Englishmen could have stopped him getting it to the line.

The crowd around me was subdued at first, not sure if it was another Irish score, but by now my St Patrick's Day pints had taken what was left of my inhibitions and I started screaming 'BASE OF THE POST! BASE OF THE POST!' like a complete lunatic and thankfully I was vindicated by both the TMO and referee Angus Gardner.

Heavens alive...23 minutes on the clock and we're up 14-0 at Twickenham folks!  Still no celebrations yet though...and on the very next kickoff we found out why.

In all seriousness, I'd have been disappointed if the English just gave up at that point, and I certainly wasn't.  As we perhaps nodded off for a split second, suddenly there's Elliot Daly grabbing the restart back for his side and this galvanised his team mates behind him to remind us that we actually were in a contest. 

But before I continue, note the time on the clock as Daly took the catch - 23:48 to be precise.

What followed was a period of relentless pressure from the two-time reigning Six Nations champions - it began with 11 phases that got them into our 22 before they were driven all the way back by our famed line speed and gainline tackling.

As we thought we had stolen back possession, the TMO had a look at a challenge by Bundee Aki - it definitely looked like he dipped his shoulder into Daly but I would've been annoyed if it was more than a pen as I've seen similar challenges on Irish players which were mitigated by the wrap of an arm, which Aki definitely did, so thankfully the officials were of a similar mind.

Still, the penalty kept the home side on the front foot [no way were they taking the three with this deficit] and despite our ability to hold our own in the onslaught we went on to ship as many penalties in one sequence than we did in the entire match against Wales - eventually someone had to go to the bin and it was Peter O'Mahony who got the nod.

We actually managed to pinch the ball from another lineout but couldn't quite get it clear completely and on their next attack, with yet another penalty advantage pending, Farrell plants a sweet rugby league style kick that sat up perfectly for Daly to finally get his side on the board.

I know I wasn't the only one who allowed thoughts of 'ah no this is where the comeback begins' to creep into my mind.  But let's go back to the clock...by the time the points were registered, it had moved on to 31:22.  So when they were handed an attacking situation, it took them about eight minutes to make it count.  We had already done it in less than one, twice.  And the half wasn't over yet.

Rugby matches are meant to last eighty minutes, so you might think this five-win grand slam was won after four hundred.  You'd be very wrong.  I doubt you'll find a side in world rugby right now that's better at squeezing every last drop of juice out of a half of rugby as this 2018 Irish vintage.

It started, of course, with that drop goal in Paris at the very end, but since then we have shown a reluctance to head to the dressing room for half time until we'd found another score and this was no exception.  

Sexton had gone off for a bloody nose and I have to say, at a time when we needed composure to keep the home side from growing too much in confidence, Joey Carbery did well to provide it.  He had some help from his forwards who won a penalty at a scrum and enforced a choke tackle along the way, plus Rob Kearney was able to pull another one down out of the sky.

Yet while most visiting sides would have been delighted to safely usher a 14-5 lead to the interval [especially with their superstar ten off the field], this lot was having none of it and when there was a fraction of space to be found up Jacob Stockdale's wing, he kicked one into the 22, made contact with it at the tryline, and got to it just before it reached the dead ball line [which Eddie Jones had extended...Sidenote of the Tournament?] to touch down.

Of course the TMO had to get involved, but again on first look I showed no fear 'IT'S OFF HIS KNEE! THAT'S A TRY! DEFINITELY OFF HIS KNEE! THAT'S A TRY!' I bellowed.  I think my logic was that I needed to say it twice even though everyone must have heard me the first time.  And again, thankfully, my Guinness-soaked Irish goggles hadn't let me down as young Stockdale had indeed set a Six Nations record for try-scoring. 

So with Carbery brilliantly popping over the extras, there we were, half way through with a flippin sixteen point lead.  By the love of all that's holy....that's almost too much lads!  What can we say?  What can we think?  Dare we tempt the almighty rugby gods already?  I certainly wasn't.

It was all about the next score as far as I was concerned, and England came out with a determination to get it.  They won a bout of midfield kick tennis before a series of 14 phases stretched our defence back and forth creating space on Keith Earls wing for Elliot Daly to saunter over for his second....oh no, it's just three minutes into the half and that's another try this could go south very quickly....hang on????  What just happened???

Keith Earls is in the form of his life these days - I sincerely hope the injury he incurred towards the end isn't too serious.  Maybe Stockdale has taken the shine off of him in the try-scoring department but Earlsy finds away to make a key contribution in any way he can and for me this amazing tap-tackle intervention was every bit as useful to Ireland's cause as a seven-pointer.  Now we can arguably call it the Slam-winning moment but I certainly wasn't thinking it at the time.

From there it took England another 18 phases to threaten us again and it was Daly once more involved in the move falling apart as his over-enthusiastic neck roll on Rob Kearney gave us a chance to clear.

Now is the time to harp on our overall defence.  England had 54% possession and 58% territory yet were never really in the contest because they weren't allowed to do anything with either advantage.  While Keith's tackle was vital, one thing that makes it stand out is that we were hitting them so often at the gainline [not to mention driving them back as well] that the hits could almost be taken for granted.  

But you won't find me doing that - Henderson 22, man of the match Furlong 18, Ryan 16, Leavy & Stander 15 were the tackling leaders statistically but as with most things in this Irish team it was a team effort that kept the opposition at bay.

And another thing that was going right for us was our bench - as well as Sexton's nose getting sorted we had a few occasions where our backline needed to be chopped and changed, and when Aki had to be stretchered off on 55, Jordan Larmour was thrust into the Irish centre for a critical portion of the match.

But just like all of the other players Joe has called on for this championship, he wasn't deterred and on our first real attack on the English 22 of the second half he got it all the way to the line before the play was called back for a penalty, which Conor Murray was called on to kick despite Sexton having returned.  

So now, after England spent twenty minutes trying to find a way back into the match, we not only kept them out but also managed to put points of our own on the board...the score was now an unbelievable 5-24 with twenty minutes to go.  I heard someone nearby say 'Can we say it now?'. One steely glare from me was all the answer they needed.

And sure enough, my reluctance was vindicated as a sweet offload from Mike Brown got Daly over for his second try a few minutes later.  Farrell again missed the conversion but the lead was now 'just' fourteen...remember, given what we were chasing, a draw was as bad as a defeat to us so being within two scores was a little too close for comfort.

To the home side's credit, they didn't let up until the end.  In Danny Care they had just the right scrum half to bring on to up the tempo and they definitely gave it all they had to get closer.  Also, in Joe Marler they had just the right trouble maker to swing an arm, and that has me wondering why everyone is only focusing on Aki's challenge, though now I've mentioned it here I think I can find it in myself to let that go.

I finally allowed myself to believe that this match was won when Sean Cronin pushed Mike Brown into touch as he tried to get over in the corner on 77 minutes.  I might have even allowed myself a smile.  Meanwhile out on the pitch, Eddie Jones' men kept at us to the bitter end as Johnny May touched down but again it was in the corner thanks to our stingy D so there was no conversion and no bonus point.

And so, after what was in virtually every respect a powerful performance, we could now taste the glory.  The second bout of heavy Dublin snow may have thwarted a proper welcome home for the lads, but at least with social media we have been able to savour much of the celebrations.  

The thanks, of course, should go well beyond Joe and his matchday 23 - many players were unfortunate to miss out through injury like Josh Van der Flier, Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell...there's the other coaches like Andy Farrell who was responsible for the defence plus Simon Easterby  & Greg Feek who don't seem to get much press despite the handy figures from the pack [like 7/7 scrums and 14/14 lineouts here].  Also there's the wider player pool at provinces all the way down to the most junior of junior clubs...though in actual numbers it might be small yet each and every year it gets more and more top heavy talent-wise.

But despite all the hype about the Irish holiday that was in it, where it was, who this match was against and how much of a loud-mouth their coach is, all of that was just frosting on the cake that was the culmination of so much hard work by Joe Schmidt and his charges.

And the best thing of all right now for this set-up?  There's still another big target on the horizon for them.  Yes, by all means let's savour this amazing achievement for all it's worth, but we all know Joe still has a World Cup final four in his sights, and that will definitely serve to keep him focused, with a three-match series in Australia next on the list.

My Leinster jersey is ready to come out of the wardrobe for the remainder of the season and hopefully there's even more celebrations to be had.  But I think I can wait another day or two.  I've been harping on rugby for almost ten years now and I don't think I've enjoyed going back over a match more.  I probably could have made this post twice as long.

What a performance.  What a team.  What a time to be an Irish rugby fan.  Come the day and come the hour...  JLP

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