Neil Francis: Missed chance dawns on Irish
WHAT we are trying to do here is make sense of what happened last Saturday. I am not on a sound footing to rationalise or philosophise because I did not think Ireland would win.
I'm kind of a guilty bystander who was lucky enough to see what happened. It's hard to see the genesis of this victory coming from the bones of the Wales defeat.
The Monday after the Welsh game was a ‘hang dawg' type of day, one where the national mood was one millimetre away from morbid melancholy.
Even the birds were signing Leonard Cohen songs. Difficult so on that Monday to plan with coherence.
Mervyn Murphy, the video splicer and dicer, would have been the first man to garner encouragement.
Even though England had been fluent and their execution had been at times startlingly good, they were easy to figure out.
Multi-phase needs go-forward – and quick go-forward at that. How would Ireland slow it up? Simples! They would meet England on the gain-line, in pairs and hold them up in the tackle.
All you would need was application and resolve – remember the old saying where there is a will ... there's a relative. I played against England half a dozen times.
They are always bigger, heavier, stronger and faster than us – a lot of times it demands more than courage and conviction. England had, in their previous four matches, broken the tackle line twice as much as anyone in the championship.
How did Ireland limit them to one clean line-break and faultlessly execute six or seven tackles and turn them into mauls and an Irish feed from the resulting scrum or turnovers?
Ireland, lest we forget, had only conceded three tries all tournament, two of which should never have happened – Steve Thompson’s try should never have happened either.
It is a basis for confidence – the belief in their own defensive capability. England were figured out pretty handy. In fact, days before they even landed in Dublin.
All those lovely triangular passing movements involving their halves, all those lovely invisible trailing lines and ‘popping up out of nowhere' by Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto were closed off.
Their one-paced back-row never got into contact on their own terms – when they sought the comfort and safety of the ground they were denied it.
When we settled for slow ball at the ruck, they had to think again. Such was Ireland’s confidence they would have gladly settled for slow ball.
Instead, they had to fight to stop the turnover as the ball stayed off the ground a lot of the time. The patience showed by Ireland heightened the sense of how cold-blooded they were.
Monday morning’s video session was a panacea for selfdoubt. All these clear-the-air meetings that the squad had engaged in – and most of the trouble they got themselves into – was caused by introspection.
This team is an extravagantly gifted unit but for most of this championship they lacked the the power to use their talent. What was the catalyst for their reversal of poor and inconsistent form?
The Telegraph sought to explain it as racial hatred – two races in physical combat. The mere sight of the rose had very little to do with it.
The Irish and the English have been the closest in terms of friendship in rugby on and off the pitch.
We have a long way to catch up on the naked hatred shown by the Italians, French, Welsh and Scottish.
There is no doubt in any of the matches I played against England – no matter how badly we were playing at the time – that there was always a quantifiable lift in terms of attitude and performance once the English game came around, particularly if at home.
The expliqué is only partial, it goes nowhere close to explaining the jump in quality – nor does the thought of spoiling England’s big day clarify the jump in quality.
The simple, universal truth is that this team are champions and they needed redemption – redemption from nobody else on this island except themselves, and the fact that they were able to do it after a spiritually deflating performance against Wales tells you that they still have it.
Rather than celebrating their win, they are probably rueing the missed opportunity for silverware. There is a touch of the 46A about Grand Slams – Ireland have missed their second in close proximity, not even did they get the joy of putting 40 or more on England when it was there for them.
Because in the giddy aftermath it was only England. England who we have now beaten seven out of the last eight times we have played. They are not a good side. There were mistakes, there were five knock-ons, and it was an imperfect performance.
Next week we would be ready for Australia or South Africa, but next week is a week after the international season is over; next week is Jayzus Rodney Parade and the Newport Bleedin' Dragons.
Timing is everything in rugby. Three years into the job, Declan Kidney should know what it is that puts his players in the winning mode.
On that Monday morning, they planned with audacity and on Saturday they executed with vigour for the first time since ... since ... the England game last year at Twickenham.
Maybe he should play England more often. They now have a chance for reflection and return to the Aviva on August 27 for another glorious reunion.
That one will be different and just as difficult.