Saturday 16 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Working miracles

The stats tell us Ireland should be in crisis, yet the ability to pick opponents' pockets leaves another Triple Crown only 80 minutes away

Man of the match Tomas O'Leary breaks through the tackle of Welshman Jamie Roberts Photo: Getty Images
Man of the match Tomas O'Leary breaks through the tackle of Welshman Jamie Roberts Photo: Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Galilee, they'd have put Declan Kidney in charge of weddings. We've no desire to blaspheme here, but that 'Miracle in Cana' business has, of late, been getting plagiarised by 15 men in green.

If it's not quite a water-into-wine thing going down, Ireland's redemptive Six Nations charge has still got people checking replays for tricks of the light.

How do they do it?

For two games running now, they've let the opposition have the ball as if it's making a ticking sound. Then, sporadically, they grab it back and serenade us all with lovely little trumpet lines of creation.

The possession and territory stats tell us that Ireland should be in crisis. On Saturday, Wales spent precisely twice as much time in Irish territory during the second half as we did in theirs. In total, the visitors won twice as much ball in open play and completed 187 passes to Ireland's 109.

Yet, from the slew of red advances, what exactly did they reap? Nothing.

Frankly, if they were just handed the keys to Croke Park and told to turn out the lights when they were done, Wales still didn't look a team capable of locating the Irish try-line.

Just as England had been picked off with stealthy picador jabs at Twickenham, Warren Gatland's boys were allowed blow themselves harmlessly out like a twister sucked into the ocean. In Ireland's last 160 minutes of rugby, the team has scored six tries and leaked one.

What on earth will the figures be if they ever get hold of the ball?

Kidney's Ireland is an illusionist's dream. They apply a covenant of trust in one another that invites the opposition forward. Under Les Kiss, they have managed to take the wrinkles of one bad day in Paris and smoothed them into a defensive work of art.

So Wales huffed and puffed on Saturday. And Ireland just picked their pockets.

You could see the confusion writ across the faces of Martyn Williams and Rob Howley afterwards as they hunched tight at the post-match press conference, poring over a stats sheet like crippled business moguls drawn to a bewildering bank statement.

If the scoreline didn't sit at the top of the sheet in stark, charcoal lettering, Wales might easily have believed they were in credit.

But the truth was they were miles adrift. Jonny Sexton's place-kicking is all that separates him from the status of a complete out-half and his return of just three from seven in tranquil conditions meant that the sluice gates never quite opened on hopelessly out-smarted opponents.

Yet, in all other areas, Ireland played with perfect precision. Lee Byrne's sin-binning was ruthlessly exploited by two glorious shocks of lyricism and when, five minutes after the resumption, Wales got their first real scent of blood, they were knocked back on their heels like docile sentries.

Their decision to turn down a certain three points in favour of a five-metre scrum spoke of an almost personal disrespect of John Hayes. It was, indisputably, the moment that sealed their fate. Because disrespecting Hayes is like taking a pen-knife to a proud old oak.

The scrum had to be re-set twice before, to great peals of Dublin thunder, the Welsh scrum wheeled clumsily sideways like a broken carousel and Mr Joubert signaled for an Irish penalty. In that instant, Wales might as well have dug out the shower gel from their bags.

"We had to do that," stressed Cian Healy later. "We couldn't really sit on our line and get bumped over. We've a bit of pride in our scrum as well and we don't want to be put back on anything. So it was a pretty big moment for us."

Stephen Ferris addressed the mechanics. "We kept getting beaten on the hit (until then)," said the Ulster man. "Every time the referee said 'engage', we seemed to be going back. So we just had a quiet word and got it right.

"John got ahead of the hit on his opposite man and we all just piled in after that. He did really well for us there to get us up."

Wales took the discouragement as a virtual foreclosure order. True, Ireland were never quite out of sight until Sexton's 77th-minute drop-goal, but the image of the visitors emptying their bench from mid-way through the second period resonated of lifeboats dropping from a stricken vessel.

All three of Ireland's tries spoke of an accuracy in attack that Wales could never muster, Keith Earls especially coming of age like a starling bursting upward into the light.

Yet, still, little things clogged the pipes. Mr Joubert's interpretation at the breakdown clearly antagonised the Irish more than once and the concession of 30 penalties in their last two games tells of a team maybe more at odds with the IRB tinkering than most. Not many things visibly stoke Kidney's ire, but this experimentation mid-Championship seems to have him tingling.

The game's rulers seem set on a course of sanitising contact to the point of introducing dinner-table etiquette to the tackle. It's a move that has been decorating Super 14 with basketball score-lines. Rugby, then, but not as we know it.

"I like games where you're kind of getting beaten up a bit," surmised Healy afterwards, maybe unwittingly shining a light on the philosophical gulf that exists between the hemispheres.

No matter, a fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons sits tantalisingly within reach now.

Healy, rather soberingly, admitted to a Scottish questioner that the last time Ireland lost a Six Nations game to the tartan brigade (2001), he was "trying to get on Junior Cup teams". In a sense, it was an observation that highlighted the challenge facing Kidney now.

Under Eddie O'Sullivan, Ireland turned a troubled history against the Scots into a story of almost casual rule. Ireland have all but forgotten what it is to lose this fixture. All of which makes complacency a danger.

And yet, it seems unthinkable that maybe the last game of rugby to be played in Croke Park will not decant a coronation.

The uniqueness of the day certainly won't be lost on Tomas O'Leary. Son of a Cork legend and, himself, an All-Ireland-winning minor hurler, O'Leary's grasp of the symbolism now looming is, perhaps, sharper than that of many around him.

Securing the Crown in this storied piece of real estate would be "unbelievable" he surmised.

"Especially, the last game in Croke Park. You know, in the history and culture of this island, it's a massive part of our identity. If we could beat Scotland next week and win a Triple Crown here on the back of last year's Grand Slam, it would be great.

"A big honour for me personally anyway."

Kidney, himself, suggested that "if ever a venue deserved a final, this is the venue. For us, that's what this match will be -- a final."

And, frankly, you had to deduce that there is nothing remotely hokey about the reverence these men carry for GAA headquarters. The place actually seems to give them goosebumps. "We have to do it justice," as Healy put it. "Because it's been a big thing for the Irish rugby team to be let play here."

You will gather that all was dignity and note-perfect decorum as the evening light drained off Jones's Road. And indeed it was. Brian O'Driscoll's 100th cap seemed to impart a grace to the day that might easily have eluded it.

Gatland, to be fair, was almost statesmanlike in his grief. Ireland, he agreed quietly, had been the better, more clinical team. Wales had no cushion of excuses, he said. The gun stayed in its holster, then.

His bearing, it should be acknowledged, neither menopausal nor warthoggish.

Irish Independent

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