Saturday 24 March 2018

Tony Ward: It's a game of two halves as Sexton and Murray continue to flourish

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Call it small pieces, but bit by bit a much bigger jigsaw is emerging as Joe Schmidt's Ireland goes from winning strength to winning strength.

Not for a minute in the 80 (well maybe the 79th) did we feel home and hosed - even at 19-3 - yet there was a reassuring sense of an Irish side in control against the power and might of an English juggernaut at full second-half throttle.

Conor Murray of Ireland is pursued by George Ford of England during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium
Conor Murray of Ireland is pursued by George Ford of England during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium

In the end, ten points represented the difference on the scoreboard. A little flattering? Perhaps, and yet we return to that word control again. Here, for the second time in three weeks, was an Ireland side in control of pace and tempo against the traditional big two of northern hemisphere rugby.

There is a sense of purpose, a sense of strategy to just about everything Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and this new age Ireland under Schmidt attempt to do. Right from the off and every restart, they marry the simple things so well. From kick to catch, to platform set, to clearance kick - the efficiency is meticulous in its precision.

Robbie Henshaw received the official Man of the Match nod, rightly so, and we will return to that anon but let nobody be in any doubt as to the key hub in team Ireland as currently constituted.

Once again our half-backs were imperious. When an out-half can rely on his scrum-half to share the kicking load, it's happy days. Schmidt has at the heart of his still-emerging force not just the best kickers out of hand but the most tactically-astute pairing in the global game at this point in time.

Murray's ability with the boot, chiefly his box kicking, makes life so much easier for Sexton, who is in position anyway to do his defensive clearing if required. More importantly for the opposition back-row, the dilemma is which of the Irish halves to attempt to close. Murray's consistent excellence in the art is already buying his high profile partner so much more time and with it, that little bit of bonus space.

It is an age-old formula, half-backs complimenting each other, but seldom seen in the modern game. Do not underestimate the value of Murray and Sexton. Of course they feed off quality possession and the better the quality, the better they feed. When forwards are getting a return on their investment (possession), they tend to up the ante and right now all 13 regular Irish forwards (and no we're not forgetting Jamie Heaslip) are doing just that.

The Irish halves are well on the road to world class. But they weren't alone in an outstanding opening quarter. Simon Zebo was defensively sublime in that period, so too Sean O'Brien, while Henshaw, right from the opening whistle, was like a man possessed. We dare not stand accused of over exaggeration but equally I don't think it's stretching it too much to suggest this Man of the Match performance was most definitely the former Marist College student's coming of age. He was fantastic and, apart from an exceptional try, was brutishly physical and equally effective in crossing the gain line and providing forward momentum at almost every attempt.

Mind you, he had some opposition for the game's most influential player in Billy Vunipola. The England No8 gave an awesome display, albeit in defeat. Dan Cole too was immense as were Jack Nowell and Alex Goode. But this was Ireland's day and quite possibly the biggest step, despite the Celtic challenges to come, to a possible Grand Slam.

And while I'm not privy to knowing if the coach or any of his management had words with match officials at the interval re the offside mayhem, let's just say the second half implementation was light years removed from the first.

In the end, 19-9 was probably just about right. Nowell almost stole in at the death but relentless commitment to defending in that period - just one try conceded in three Six Nations matches is exceptional even by the highest Les Kiss standard - deserved the little bit of luck (via the forward pass) that came their way. Three down two to go.

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