Tuesday 21 May 2019

Neil Francis: 'Kick that stopped a nation wasn't just 2018 highlight - it was the best Irish sporting moment ever'

Jonny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It is 9.0 on Monday morning. Maths class is 15 minutes old. I am not there though, I'm standing in a corridor in the Mater Hospital. The doors to the coronary theatre open up as Maurice Nelligan breezily comes out through the in door. Luckily there was no waiter with a carafe of Chardonnay and six glasses on a tray going the other way.

"Broken ribs?" he asks.

"Dunno," I reply.

He gestures and I follow him in to his office. I know he has already been in theatre since 6.0 am - open heart surgery - yet there is no blood on his gown.

I can see a lot of people feverishly working near the table. How could he just leave?

"Oh, the other surgeons and registrars do all the prep work, open 'em up, saw the ribs, prepare the heart and organise the arteries."

"What do you do?" I ask.

"Oh I just come in at the very end and do my stuff - you know the important stuff." He was joking, but he wasn't really. He just had a way of making the most complex procedure seem routine, mundane even. Only exceptional people have that quality.

Ireland's 42-phase series in Paris back in February leading up to Jonathan Sexton's match-winning drop goal was not only the greatest sporting moment in 2018 in Irish international team sport, but of all time on this island.

I've watched the film countless times at this stage and as an essay in selfless commitment, trust in the team ethic and raw courage, nothing else I have seen comes close.

What elevates these great moments is the ability to do things at the only time of asking and under the most extreme pressure from a formidable opponent. To elicit a winning response when it was easier to fail is why the nation will remember that passage long into the future. It fully engaged the nation.

Sure, moments like Stuttgart and Giants Stadium enthralled the nation but these were moments of great individual skill from out of the blue and from early in the game that ensured progress in the competition but ultimately no championship.

To beat France, a formidable rugby nation of 70 million people, in their own back yard, when they had the game won, is a very un-Irish thing to do. Our DNA normally tells us that there is comfort to be had in moral victories.

The drop goal in rugby union is embroidered in its fabric - take it out and you lose something.

Ireland has enjoyed its share of special ones. These great moments though were done in double quick time.

Brian Spillane, Donal Lenihan, Michael Bradley, Mike Kiernan - all over in 20 seconds in 1985. Again in 2009, Rory Best to Paul O'Connell, six rapid phases and then Peter Stringer to Ronan O'Gara, and all done in less than a minute. If it was lovemaking there would be complaints. In truth in Paris this year, Ireland were consistently competitive but slightly under-cooked. They were on a slow boat to China for the win when they got caught cold by a Teddy Thomas moment of magic. Anthony Belleau should have applied the coup de grace in the 77th minute but his kick went left and marginally wide.

A reprieve in Paris? A rarity.

The ball landed in Sexton's hands. Ireland's out-half had already been conspiring with Fergus McFadden. The Leinster winger, on the pitch instead of Ireland's new superstar Jacob Stockdale after he got stepped by Thomas (the French are not the only people who use the guillotine), was to ghost up the sideline and Sexton would guide the ball between Sebastian Vahaamahina and Thomas.

Sexton's 22 drop-out was so good that if Iain Henderson had not brought off a brilliant over-the-head catch, McFadden would undoubtedly have latched on to it and could have worked his way well into the French half.

When Henderson caught the ball, Sexton thought about placing a long ball deep into French territory and hope for a set-piece in the French half but as the phases paid dividends, Ireland inched forward and the clock ticked, speculation was no longer an option - Ireland would have to keep the ball. Sexton knew Ireland needed to get to the French 10-metre line in possession.

In five minutes of possession Ireland's halves played with the instinct of world champions. You cannot coach intuition. Murray played the ball 34 times, Sexton 13. Every time Sexton got on the ball there was a pervading sense of threat to the French. The French defence had to think every time he touched the ball. Sexton and Murray produced vital interventions on French players primed in the poach position at ruck time. It is not in their job description to roll French forwards out of rucks but quite simply the game was up if they didn't.

Twenty-four phases had gone by and the surgeon had to intervene. France were defending narrowly and had condensed their defenders 10 metres either side of the ruck. Ireland, tiring rapidly, would eventually make a mistake or turn the ball over. Over the course of his Leinster career Sexton had developed a telepathic relationship with Isa Nacewa. When the cross-kick was on Nacewa looked disinterested to the point that he looked like he was selling popcorn on the sideline. In direct contrast, Keith Earls in Paris had stuck his hand up four times to say that he was 15 metres outside of Virimi Vakatawa. The play had high risk but the accuracy of the kick was bewildering, as was Earls' ability in the air. It's easy to do it in practice. That was where the space was and it caught the French cold as Earls got some traction and some go-forward after he came back down to earth.

At this stage it is probably important to mention Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander who both carried seven times. This, when you are out of gas, is called courage. Devin Toner, too, must take credit, he must have cleared half of those rucks, how does he do it? Nigel Owens, too, is worthy of mention. The Corinthian didn't ping Vahaamahina or Dany Priso for clear infractions of the rules, rather coaching them out of their infringements. Ireland were lucky once or twice but the directive from the referee was to go out and win it, he wasn't going to end it by handing an easy or an unjustified penalty to either side.

Henderson and Stander made a critical 10 metres with the penultimate drive. Murray looked three times. With Sexton it is normally a flash of the eyes, this time it was a nod. The last drive left the French on the back foot, creating a precious but vital half-second extra. Murray's pass was a bullet; accurate, elbow height and slightly to the right side. The registrars had done their job. Now for the important stuff.

Poise and cadence are important but Sexton showed great balance which allowed him to follow through, his left arm at a perfect 90 degrees. It was a beautiful strike which he knew was over even before it went between the posts.

Sexton had nailed a beauty in the 2009 Heineken Cup final in Murrayfield and said it was strange to head into the back field after slotting a stupendous 55-metre goal. There wasn't even a fist pump with a colleague.

Being mobbed by his team-mates in Paris made up for that feeling. It was surely the most satisfying moment of his career. It showed the deep belief he has in himself and more importantly his team-mates' belief in him. It was a staggering feat of co-ordination and understanding under murderous levels of pressure. What a moment. It stopped the nation.

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