There was no Grand Slam for yesterday’s winners, just a slam dunk
The last time we were looking at a post Six Nations scene when the pitch was empty of all but the folks cleaning up, except for a group of players posing with the trophy, was in Cardiff, 2005. Mike Ruddock’s Wales had beaten Ireland with room to spare.
It was an unlikely triumph — at least pre-tournament — but well deserved, and great to watch. It was a fair while after the final whistle when men in red emerged as men in black, all suited and booted in tuxedos, ready to get the snap with the Six Nations trophy. They looked and sounded like they wanted it to last forever.
Long after French referee Mathieu Raynal had headed to the showers in Lansdowne Road last night the Irish players took their time in a giant circle before posing for the team pic with the Millennium Trophy. At least we think that’s still what they play for in this fixture.
Whether the physical symbol was a piece of silverware, specially struck 21 years ago, or a silver bullet dodged, probably didn’t matter too much. It was an opportunity to pose and enjoy one of those performances that was truly special.
“Jesus, where did that come from?” asked one of the broadcasting crew as they loaded up their gear in the press box. Some felt Ireland would be very competitive in a game with maybe one score between the teams. Others felt the chill you experience when it’s not rain coming down but hailstones. Nobody on planet Earth saw Ireland running down the clock before Johnny Sexton called time, feeling no heat from England, despite having only 13 players left on the field.
It was fitting that Sexton should be the one putting the ball out of play, for in another 80-minute performance his use of the same ball had been so good. The scrum-half at the time was Hugo Keenan, the find of Andy Farrell’s two seasons in the job, because Conor Murray was on a yellow card that wouldn’t run out, and Bundee Aki was on a red.
By the time those normally significant events unfolded England were already having visions that were blurred. Winners over France a week ago, in one of the best games in Six Nations history, here they were on the wrong end of everything.
It started with the loss of Max Malins in their captain’s run, which saw them throw George Martin on the bench in a shift from a 5-3 split to 6-2. Sure enough it would be backs they needed. They ended up with reserve scrum-half Dan Robson at out-half after Owen Farrell went off with a ding.
George Ford had a poor game. His personal portent of doom had come in the first quarter with England leading 3-0. They had just been free-kicked at an attacking five-metre scrum from which conceivably they could have gone 10-0 up. Sexton whacked the ball 40 metres to touch.
England won the lineout safely and launched with a move that is virtually impossible to stop if you don’t kill it at source. Robbie Henshaw killed it stone dead, then delivered a little eulogy, the theme of which was the dangers of exposing yourself to the choke tackle. Scrum Ireland. Momentum shift.
Why on earth did England keep restarting to the heart of Henshaw’s parish? This man of the match has been man of the campaign. Andy Farrell framed the week with CJ Stander at its centre, and his carries, one out from rucks over Henshaw, gave Ireland consistently good exits.
This was neither the perfect game nor a perfect performance by the winners — their defence against Ben Youngs’ late try was awful — but the good stuff was so good it kept shutting down routes for England into the game. Again the set-piece held up very well, but a woeful weakness of Ireland’s attack in this Championship has been their use of ball from scrum and lineout.
Here they used it to whip England. The conception and execution of Keith Earls’ try was sublime. The tiniest malfunction and the engine would have stalled. There were a few actors behind the scenes but Rob Herring’s throw, Jack Conan’s tap-down under pressure, and then the winger’s timing and finishing deserved a full house to raise the roof.
The number eight’s own try, just before the break, was the best passage of play Ireland have managed against anybody in an age. The only pity was that a knock-on by Iain Henderson pulled the rug from Earls getting a second try, on 49 minutes. Again it was Ireland using the ball well in the structure of their attack. Even Henderson’s effort to reclaim the ball when he lost control of it looked good.
In the circumstances Ireland needed someone to close doors as well as open them. Sexton has kicked 25 from 26 off the tee in this Championship. His nerveless accuracy was like a short but instructive message flashing across the scoreboard: ‘Not tonight lads. There’s nothing for you here.’
There was a ripple of unease when Aki saw red for a tackle that clattered Billy Vunipola in the head. It was on 64 minutes, and Youngs took advantage almost immediately. That’s when leadership took on an even higher value.
The Tadhgs, Furlong and Beirne, stood up, as did Andrew Porter, who replaced Furlong. One carry under pressure, with white shirts trying to strip him, was immense, and led to Sexton shooting for more.
His experience would have told him the damage he was doing to England’s cause, which might have prompted replacement Ellis Genge to give him some elbow-led abuse towards the end. When Aki went off they needed Ireland to panic and pile error on error, showing the referee one of those pictures that turn them full force against the team under pressure.
The composure, however, was unmissable. As England scrambled against the clock, Ireland kept enough pressure on to keep them far enough away from the target.
Close enough to see it, but a long way from their reach. Like the silverware on display at the end. There was no Grand Slam to the winners, just a slam dunk.