Monday 23 April 2018

Bring on the All Blacks - Ireland's Grand Slam heroes ready to take on the world

 

Ireland players celebrate at Twickenham
Ireland players celebrate at Twickenham
CJ Stander is tackled by Dylan Hartley at Twickenham on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile

Jack de Menezes

Schmidt's men only Northern Hemisphere side capable of challenging All Blacks in Japan, writes Jack de Menezes

Grand Slam champions, the second best side on the planet - World Cup champions?

After a dominant Six Nations triumph over the past seven weeks, the chances of that last statement coming true are bigger than ever before.

Joe Schmidt's side completed a Championship clean sweep with an emphatic display to down England 24-15 on Saturday.

Twelve months ago Ireland based their game on the emotion of preventing England's potential Grand Slam to beat them in Dublin; this time around they were simply the better team.

The stats may show that both teams scored three tries each, that England had more possession, more territory, more line breaks and more metres, but there only ever looked like one winner at Twickenham.

From the fifth minute England were chasing the game; midway through the first half they were 14 points behind and that gap was stretched to 18 before they started to fight back.

What makes Ireland so good is that they are finding different ways of winning games. On this occasion they shot out of the blocks; the opening weekend saw Johnny Sexton kick a match-winning drop-goal in stoppage-time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat; and in between they have thrashed Italy, Scotland and, to a lesser degree, Wales.

They now have match-winners throughout their squad, from Sexton to Garry Ringrose to CJ Stander. In Tadhg Furlong they have the best tighthead prop in the world, in Jacob Stockdale they have one of the finds of the season.

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Asked to sum Ireland up, Eddie Jones had an immediate response. "Super, good, tough side, well coached, good leadership from the players, play to their strengths - good resolve. An excellent team."

They are also a side that has the memories of a win over New Zealand still in the back of their mind. The October 2016 victory in Chicago was the first chink in the All Blacks armour to be exposed - the Lions and Australia have since added to that - and Ireland are also proving capable of travelling to hostile destinations and finding ways of winning, with Paris and London two cities that have haunted them in the past.

For their coach, Joe Schmidt, who could well now find himself favourite to lead the Lions in 2021 - particularly after Jones' offensive comments about Ireland and Wales were revealed last week - there were plenty of reasons to be proud of his players.

But there was one in particular that he took the time to explain in great detail as to why it became so crucial in their Grand Slam success. "I think it's probably their resilience," Schmidt said.

"I felt that we were really struggling in France in that last eight minutes when Teddy Thomas scored.

"That's tough when you've controlled the game and missed a kick to go 15-6 up to make the game safe. And suddenly you're 13-12 down, to show the steel that they did, to show the commitment and just plain ordinary rugby ability, to keep the ball, to connect up, to win ball in the air, and then the exceptional Johnny has to put the ball between the uprights, finished it off.

"As frustrating as it was when Wales got back close to us after we had a 14-point lead, again, it never really felt like we would give that up. For Jacob Stockdale to race away and score at the end, Jacob was totally in control of the edge of the defence.

"And [at Twickenham], that eight minutes after half-time sums up this team. Yes, they can put together some really good moments and score tries. We probably totalled more than we've ever scored in a Six Nations.

"They delivered on that side, but that pure resilience, that ability to get back up and get back in the defensive line to protect that try-line in the eight minutes after half-time, was exceptional."

Exceptional teams win World Cups, or at least find themselves in the mix for them. Ireland have never really been in the mix when it comes to the global gathering, with 2015 ending with the side out on their feet as a flurry of injuries depleted the squad to the point of no return against Argentina.

Now, they have the squad depth to address that with the likes of Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour emerging and Andrew Porter looking a very handy back-up to Furlong - although scrum-half still looks a concern if Conor Murray is unavailable for any reason.

For all of England's talk of taking on the All Blacks, there's only one side in the Northern Hemisphere who currently look capable of challenging the world champions.

And after admitting last week that his side have been "left behind" by other teams, Jones will be very aware of how much a threat Ireland are going to be in Japan next year.

(© Independent News Service)

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