Thursday 23 November 2017

Tony Ward: Complete performance puts pressure on long-serving stars

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If ever an opening act set out to deceive, it was Jonny Sexton's uncharacteristically overcooked kick to touch on the full to start the latest in what we all expected to be another Ireland/Argentina 'paint-dryer'.

The subsequent scrum on halfway to the Pumas didn't budge an inch and, with that, the Ireland gauntlet was laid down. What followed for the next 79 minutes was riveting in both design and execution.

And just as the much-maligned Declan Kidney never loses it in a crisis, he will venture above his station even less now. But this was good – so very, very good.

Here was an Ireland side on its own patch, not so much playing with abandon, but one hitting the precious line between forward graft and backline craft.


How many Ireland Test matches embracing almost total dominance against such highly ranked opposition can we recall?

The nature of sporting endeavour between closely ranked opponents means almost inevitably that each side will have its dominant passages of play, but such was the level of intensity, backed by no little skill, that, save for the final flutter when Argentina banked two late tries to put an air of respectability on the scoreboard, this was Ireland's kingdom throughout.

Taking our lead from the head coach, we'll not lose the run of ourselves either, but 46 points, including seven tries, in the much hyped race for Pot Two at the upcoming World Cup Draw is beyond the wildest imagination of even the most biased Irish supporter.

Could this be another classical case of two halves we wondered at the break? Would we lose our way following the interval as we did against South Africa at the same venue a fortnight before?

Bear in mind, this opposition drew with the Springboks in the Rugby Championship in Mendoza on a day they could and should have topped the two-times world champions. Bear in mind, too, what they did to the Welsh in the second half in Cardiff at roughly the same time as we were being suffocated by the 'Boks in Dublin.

For the opening 10 minutes we were giving it width without really threatening. Enter Craig Gilroy – and a star was born. Some will suggest it was the fearlessness of youth, but that would do this special and still- emerging talent a huge disservice.

The ability to create space is innate. You cannot coach skill that is so clearly ingrained, but what you can do is encourage its expression and right from the get go, with carte blanche from Kidney, the kid with the Fred Astaire feet was given free rein to do just that. He did and the rest followed.

Between dancing his way clear, or at worst swivelling into space from would-be tacklers, Gilroy paved the way for the most complete Ireland team performance since God knows when.

There have been sporadic blasts, none more important than beating Australia at the last World Cup, but for the complete team performance this one stands apart in recent memory.

If we left the Aviva feeling disillusioned a fortnight ago, then we traced the same steps on a high on Saturday. And if a test star was born in Gilroy, then two more surely came of age in the guise of Sexton and Donnacha Ryan.


We asked for leaders to step forward in the absence of so many of the tried and trusted and those two did.

I am delighted for Ryan in being named the official Man of the Match, but I defy anyone to suggest there was a better match-influencing performance than that produced by the imperious Sexton.

As for Ryan, he is at last being recognised for the skill set and imposing presence he brings to every game at this level. His back-row nous is a mighty bonus in the second-row and alongside the workhorse ethic Mike McCarthy provides, it makes for the perfect second-row chemistry.

Who would believe we would ever say this, but where would Paul O'Connell fit in were the Welsh game in the next few weeks and not in February?

As it is, long-established Test icons such as O'Connell, Rob Kearney, Rory Best and even Stephen Ferris will be sleeping a lot less comfortably between now and Six Nations selection, while Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien also have little room for complacency between now and then.

And that is as it should be, for if this November series has proved one thing, it is that Ireland's got talent – provided the willingness is there to give it a shot.

We will deal with that in greater detail tomorrow, but for now let us bask in a job well done and a rugby performance that has an under-pressure nation feeling that little bit better about itself today.

Irish Independent

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