Friday 20 July 2018

Fantasy finale to wonderful journey for a team that keeps on delivering

James Ryan celebrates victory with Jordan Larmour. Photo: Getty Images
James Ryan celebrates victory with Jordan Larmour. Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

It doesn't get any better than this. We fantasised all week about what it might feel like to see Ireland complete a Grand Slam against England in Twickenham. And you know what? The wildest and most optimistic of those fantasies couldn't compete with the reality.

Ireland didn't just cope with the pressure and the hype, they thrived on them. This was the best performance of this Grand Slam year. The first 40 minutes may well have been the best half of rugby ever produced by an Irish team. The second half was a study in courage, the most disciplined of defensive displays cashing the cheque written by the attacking brilliance of the first.

It's so strange to think that this Six Nations campaign only began six weeks ago. Because it feels as though we've been on quite the journey with this team. Has there been a more satisfying Irish rugby season? Or a more resonant finale?

Probably not. This is, after all, only the third Grand Slam in Irish rugby history. Neither of the other two, massive achievements though they were, possessed such a perfect dénouement. Victories over England in any sport always touch a special chord in the Irish heart but this one may have been our most significant.

Ireland struck with deadly precision in the first half and soaked up the pressure in the second. Everything they did was marked by passion and intelligence in equal measure. Once more we were left to marvel by this team's ability to always find something extra.

Rob Kearney, rock-like in defence, leaping to force Anthony Watson into the error for the first try, has been a revelation in his last two outings, a man recapturing and redoubling the hunger which seemed to have vanished from his game. Keith Earls is another renaissance man; but for his catch in the final seconds against France the season might have unfolded very differently. Last week Garry Ringrose showed us his fleetness of foot, this week he was all fire, twice stripping the ball away from English players when a try seemed on for the home team. Bundee Aki's burst forward and perfect transfer to CJ Stander marked the moment when the tide turned conclusively Ireland's way yesterday.

And the boy Jacob? What can you say? That third try, his record breaker, was like one of those Messi goals conjured by individual inspiration and improvisation. Stockdale chipped ahead, he followed, he shook off two English players trying to foul him like a fox ridding himself of hounds and he stretched out a big hand to touch the ball down inches before it exited the field of play. Miracles are his business.

Not for the first time Johnny Sexton was bashed and battered and not for the first time he overcame it. The teasing up-and-under which led to the first try was a reminder of which country invented the Garryowen.

In the first half you could hear the English keep up a chorus of 'Murray, Murray, Murray,' the intention behind which was pretty obvious when Chris Robshaw landed a late shot on our number nine.

Yet you suspect it was music to the ears of the world's best scrumhalf. If you want an image of the focus and intelligence which animated Ireland's 2018 performances, think of Murray calmly rolling his foot over the ball, weighing up his options before invariably selecting the right one.

Tadhg Furlong is a greedy young man. Not contented with being the best tighthead prop in the world, he decided to moonlight as a centre, producing the most delicate of touches to send Aki away on that second try run.

We used to wonder who would provide the subtlety in the Irish midfield when D'Arcy and O'Driscoll were gone; I don't believe anyone suggested it might be a member of the front-row.

Rory Best hit his darts, made his tackles and copper-fastened his reputation as one of the greatest leaders Irish sport has seen. Cian Healy took Kyle Sinckler to school and is another man proving that there are second acts in Irish sporting lives.

When I see James Ryan play I think of the Greek legend telling how the war goddess Athena sprung fully grown and fully armed from the head of Zeus. A mere stripling in terms of senior let alone international rugby, Ryan seems to have packed a decade's worth of growing up into a handful of games. Time and again he drove English opposition back in the collision. His appetite for both work and responsibility is phenomenal.

As is that of Iain Henderson, whose ability at the breakdown drove England to distraction.

It has been the year of unlikely heroes. Had Seán O'Brien and Josh van der Flier not been injured, it's unlikely that Dan Leavy would have got his shot this year. Yet once more he set the tone from the start yesterday, like Ryan a young man triumphing in the most ferocious physical exchanges against an opposition noted for their power in those areas.

Peter O'Mahony's lineout work was invaluable, his graft and grit elsewhere perhaps only fully appreciated by those who know exactly what goes on in areas of the field not fully exposed to sunlight.

And Stander, whose reach for the base of the post was like a metaphor for this team stretching out to touch their destiny and who will never ever tire of making hard yards and taking punishment?

If that man hasn't earned Irish nationality I don't know who has. Wasn't Patrick himself an immigrant, brought to Ireland as a Project Saint?

The subs too played their part. Seán Cronin's try-saving tackle on Mike Brown three minutes from time put the thing to bed, Joey Carbery's ambition and confidence were instrumental in that third try, Andrew Porter made one big tackle, Jordan Larmour made two and hinted tantalisingly at what he'll do when his day dawns in full.

Thank you lads. You gave us more than we could have dreamed of. This is heaven.

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