Thursday 18 January 2018

Courage and grit our twin sentinels on day we held back the white tide

Johnny Sexton, who attempts to hand off Jonathan Joseph, has played three hard games in three weeks
Johnny Sexton, who attempts to hand off Jonathan Joseph, has played three hard games in three weeks
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The lights are way down low and the crowds have all gone home. But the memory of the day lights up a nation. Now in the late evening, the meaning of it all becomes clear.

There was a time when we looked like breaking. England were only 10 down with about 10 to go. Plenty of time to ruin the dreams of a people who have invested so much love in a team that always pays back.

And the story? We were clever and brave. Courage and grit were our twin sentinels. You would have to own a heart of stone not to be moved.

The English, to their credit, never gave in. Sexton had gone off and our neighbours sensed this was their time. Paul O’Connell has an engine that runs just as well on empty as full. But even he was beginning to wilt. If there was a tackle missed, well then I didn’t see it. I was absent from school for the geography class on coastal erosion back in the days when our text books proved conclusively the world was flat.

Now I know.


Small farmers’ small holdings in the western world were made smaller by the endless siege of the tides. England knew that size really does matter and if the boundaries of a rugby pitch were defined by ropes well then we would have been hanging on for dear life.

They just kept pounding away. The clock ticked too slow and our hearts beat too fast. Memories of the All Blacks comeback flashed up like unwanted cookies.

It seemed inevitable England would score. Somehow we held out. There was a scrum for Ireland and then a free-kick for Ireland. Forty thousand exhalations of relief almost derailed the train to deepest suburbia and the aftershock knocked over a sandcastle in Bondi.

In times when we have doubted ourselves as a nation, the resilience of our sports people are the templates for the resurgence. Sport lifts our spirits and puts us in good form, at the very least.

The message is there for all of us in our business lives or in private moments of self-doubt. The first 50 minutes were sheer joy.

Our scrum won all through. The lineout was flawless. Ireland were held up twice with only millimetres to go to the line. There were surely some who drank too much wine in the free drink boxes who saw three Henshaws.

But there were two mighty Vunipolas and you’d often wonder how their mother could find a pot big enough to feed them.

One of the Henshaws scored a try with Conor Murray calibrating every kick with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. Sexton’s kicking game was perfection. Sometimes the English did catch the ball but they caught half the Irish team too. They targeted Simon Zebo but he was superb in the air. Maybe it was how the English video analysts couldn’t get copies of the movies from the Cork U-16 GAA football league games.

Sexton was wearing a black armband for his wife Laura’s Granny Priestley. The lovely lady passed away this week. She will be greatly missed.

The word on the hamstring is that Jonathan was taken off as a precaution and the hope is the scan will not show any great damage. He has played three hard games in three weeks after three months in dry dock. Jonathan felt his body begin to stiffen up early in the second half

There was an accidental collision with Billy Vunipola and that didn’t help. He never shirks a tackle but the English didn’t go in head first. They fought fair. His head is fine and that’s the main thing.

But if the body was fatigued his mental resolve was as strong as ever.

I just don’t know how he managed to kick so straight and so true when his ailing body was screaming out for a hot tub. There were distractions.

The silence for each kick was like the beginning of curfew in a war-torn city. But then some gom let out a roar. Another guffawed. The loud laugh that speaks the vacant mind. The rules state that forwards are not allowed to move while penalties are being taken. It could just have been a dose of collective twitching picked from shaking hands with a water diviner.


As Jonathan was about to take his run, one of the English forwards cocked his leg at an imaginary lamp post or possibly it was a play from ballet. Another twirled back to look at the goal posts to make sure they were still in the same place. A third swayed as if he was on the deck of a listing ship. Maybe it was nerves in what was a very sporting game.

The English were a welcome change from the French. The French tackles were as high as a tomahawk haircut. England hurt but didn’t maim.

They spent most of the first half parked on the wrong side of the offside line. Maybe it’s time clamping was brought in to rugby.

George Ford, the English ten, was the most exciting runner on the field. One attack from behind his own line was audacious and perfectly executed. We hope the referees will mind him in these days when there’s a bounty on classy tens.

These are the glory days but Wales in Cardiff with all that singing … I’m too tired, too emotional, too mad for the high jinks in the city to play two games in the one day.

For tonight we’ll merry, merry be. Cardiff can wait for a few more days.

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