Saturday 18 November 2017

Humble pie has never tasted as good as this

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Every so often, it's great to be wrong. All rational evidence pointed to England making up for the psychological no-show at Twickenham seven days before and instead coming to Dublin with all guns blazing.

Well just how wrong could we have been as, for the second week running, Grand Slam-chasing England weren't at the races -- physically or emotionally?

Whereas last weekend the gallant Scots eventually ran out of puff and England -- courtesy of an exceptionally strong bench -- got out of jail, this time they simply weren't let off the hook.

It has taken five games to hit our straps and as inspiration-in- chief Brian O'Driscoll described it so well afterwards: "The beauty of Test match rugby is that you have to earn every performance."

On Saturday we did, and how. This was the Ireland of old married with the Ireland of new, with every player performing to the maximum of his ability. No coach can ask for more.

This was the game -- probably for the first time in his coaching career -- when Declan Kidney would stand or fall by his selection.

Well he did, and today he stands tall. Kidney has made mistakes in this campaign but whatever criticisms might have been levelled at him, he has never been guilty of indecision.

In the Calcutta Cup aftermath, England spoke of being more aggressive at the breakdown in Dublin. They weren't. More to the point, they weren't allowed to be.

The team that said little delivered, the one doing the talking was frozen out. Even allowing for the dearth in experience and years, the lack of passion amazed me.

It was as if the Thomond Park experience for English sides in Europe had been transferred to Lansdowne Road. The new stadium came of atmospheric age. It may have taken six games but, given the context, it was well worth the wait.

With all due respect to the outstanding man of the match Jonny Sexton, to elevate any one individual is almost an insult to the rest -- such was the combined contribution. Take your pick from Cian Healy to Keith Earls and beyond, and tell me one who didn't play his part.

Sexton took the award because he faced up to all the obvious pressure and sent out a message clear and early that this was his game and his responsibility to drive the team forward.

Jason Leonard was amazed at Sexton's kicking ability out of hand because he, like so many others, had been duped into this unreal perception of Sexton the runner versus Ronan O'Gara the kicker. Quality ball ensured that most everything Sexton tried was appropriate in call and execution.

It is almost unfair to single out individuals, but we must note Rory Best, Mike Ross (what a difference he has made), Donncha O'Callaghan (has he played better?), David Wallace (likewise), Jamie Heaslip (he needed it), Sean O'Brien, Eoin Reddan (intercept apart, the most balanced Irish scrum-half performance of this season), O'Driscoll (words fail me), Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble (numbers meaningless, so central was their involvement) and, last but not least, the outstanding Earls.

To single out Sexton is unfair given the input of all (Healy, Paul O'Connell and Gordon D'Arcy included), but the real relevance is in a watershed performance in which the brilliant Leinster man exuded confidence and nerves of steel under pressure.


This could well be the day he came of age as a top-quality out-half at this level. He is, for sure, a future Lion.

As for Wallace, O'Callaghan and O'Driscoll, what is it they say about vintage wine?

But the bottom line is that we have a coach who has reasserted his authority, a team that has restored its confidence and a nation that has taken its national rugby team to its heart again.

As a starting point to what now lies ahead, it's a good place to be. A potentially good team (England) didn't become a bad one on Saturday, but an under-performing Irish one delivered for the first time in this Six Nations.

The only pity is it will be five months before they run out together again. The challenge in the meantime is for Kidney to put in place the type of varied combinations for the four-game friendly series in August that will be needed in the four World Cup Pool C games to follow in September.

For now, it's time to withdraw and wallow in humble pie. God, doesn't it taste good?

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