Thursday 17 October 2019

Tony Ward: A team yet to play to its best stands on cusp of immortality

Jacob Stockdale, left, and Garry Ringrose combine to smother the
threat of Scotland’s Huw Jones on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale, left, and Garry Ringrose combine to smother the threat of Scotland’s Huw Jones on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

At a pre-Scottish match luncheon on Friday I was asked if a third championship win in five years would propel us to at least a semi-final place in the 2019 World Cup.

In short, I didn't think it would make a whit of difference but a Grand Slam-winning championship would have the potential to take us to a place we have never been before.

Winning the Six Nations is massive; however, to do a Grand Slam in an even year whereby you beat the other five over a seven-week period, but most particularly, the French and English on the road, would represent something really special.

That could take us to a new beginning. In other words if we go on to beat England in Twickenham in five days' time, it will for this observer represent our greatest achievement ever, one to outdo the victory over Australia in Eden Park at the New Zealand World Cup in 2011.

The future of Irish rugby must always rest in the here and now or, as Joe Schmidt provided a differing slant on the same theme, "history doesn't protect you from the future". It is always about the next game and that from day one has been Schmidt's way.

God help the rest of the world if ever he gets that top job in New Zealand rugby but when it comes to preparing for the next challenge nobody does it better.

Jonny Sexton of Ireland looks on. Photo: Getty Images
Jonny Sexton of Ireland looks on. Photo: Getty Images

Did I expect us to secure the (four-try) bonus point in a 20-point win over the Scots? No, is the honest answer. To win yes but not by the margin or manner we did. And yet…

And yet I didn't think we were at our best. I don't think we've produced the best in terms of our most complete game in any of the four wins to date. If that sounds like criticism then so be it but such are the standards that this coach and this squad, including the young guns, have set themselves.

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I couldn't put it any better than Johnny Sexton when he said at the post-match press conference: "It's very muted upstairs, it's a very strange feeling to win the championship with a game to go, and so much still to play for". 'So much still to play for' - therein lies the key in terms of this championship and also, of course, the 2019 World Cup.

If we better the English on their own patch then that innocent but deliberately loaded question put to me on Friday, or more pertinently its answer, could have a very real relevance. But for now let us concentrate on what was a professional job well done. It was the ideal scenario in terms of the outcome but nowhere near the perfect performance.

We started well, failed to score and then lost our way. A four-point lead (7-3) seemed a travesty of sorts (for the Scots) going into the break but when we extended that to 11 (14-3) on the final whistle, you just knew the gods were on our side.

A Schmidt pep talk and it felt we'd be right as rain again. The Scots, to their credit, attacked touchline to touchline as we knew they would but Andy Farrell had made the necessary adjustments since the Welsh and Italian games and it showed.

While we weren't exactly passive up the flanks we were calm and controlled on the drift even when occasionally squeezed a little tighter than we might have liked.

The scrum was solid throughout even if the lineout was a little iffy at times. Throwing in is not Rory Best's greatest asset but his other strengths fully compensate for the occasional glitch every game. Tadhg Furlong was a colossus and despite my fears, the medical team were true to their word (in relation to that hamstring) and he motored at max every minute of his time on.

James Ryan just grows in linking and handling presence in every game, while Dan Leavy is already our fast-developing Richie McCaw. What he has lost in pace as a pure out-and-out openside, he has gained in bulk and savvy as a destructive force on just about every fringe breakdown.

Beyond that, the halves comfortably outplayed their opposites while Garry Ringrose, given the circumstances, was absolutely immense. He is the epitome of honesty on a playing field and a class act, period. Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale both delivered to form with the latter's try-scoring phenomenon already hitting Roy of the Rovers category.

But it is for the official, and most deserving, man of the match I am particularly delighted. Rob Kearney has for some reason received a type of bum rap from so-called new-age fans. It is one he does not deserve.

Saturday represented his 82nd cap and I defy anyone to come up with a better or more consistent performer in the role and we have had some pretty slick players in the full-back position in our time.

He is not the complete article and he will be the first to concede to that, but when it comes to committing everything to the cause and being a leader in the last line, we have had none better.

He was all of that and more on Saturday. He will be under pressure at Leinster for his place when he returns but for Schmidt he is the main man and credit to the head coach for having the courage of his conviction.

From Best through Ryan, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, both halves and Kearney lies a spinal column of leaders.

Tell me that importance is misplaced and I will show you a team of impostors. What we have now travelling to Twickenham is the real deal collectively in a quest for what, if achieved, will at least match that World Cup victory over the Wallabies as the greatest ever in the history of Irish rugby. It is in a sense last year's Six Nations finale in reverse.

So much done . . . but still so much more to do.

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