Monday 18 November 2019

Zebo explodes into full bloom with moment of magic in savage battle

But O'Driscoll is still the true leader of this Irish team, says John O'Brien

There has long been a gathering chorus of those tempted to ascribe the last rites to the Six Nations championship, so unfortunately sandwiched as it is between the qualifying and knockout stages of an increasingly hyped European Cup, and eager to suggest ever more desperate measures to kick-start it back to life, the latest of which is to borrow the bonus-point element which has been such a notable feature of the club competition.

What nonsense. Leave aside the ludicrous concept of Grand Slam winners potentially being eclipsed for the title, yesterday's feral opener in Cardiff was the best advertisement you could have got for simply leaving things be. If the remaining 13 games throw up even half the drama or a fraction of the lung-bursting intensity we saw here, then we will surely be looking back in five weeks' time and concluding we had witnessed one hell of a tournament.

True, it didn't have the late twist of 12 months ago when Leigh Halfpenny's penalty broke Ireland's hearts at Lansdowne Road. Nor did it have the lingering controversy of Mike Phillips' dodgy try here two years ago or the harrowing tension of 2009 when Stephen Jones had the chance to leave Ireland's Grand Slam hopes in tatters. Not that any of that really mattered, though. There were any number of compensations.

It surely helped that for long periods of the game you couldn't have anticipated a classic. With 35 minutes remaining Ireland had scored their third try and established so much daylight between the teams that even a modicum of respectability seemed beyond Wales at that stage.

Someone casually raised the possibility of Ireland notching 50 points. Already over half-way there, it didn't sound such an outlandish prediction.

After that, though, the narrative of the game took a delicious turn. Wales woke up from whatever deep slumber they had fallen into. They fought for whatever pride they could salvage with the same ferocious passion they had fought for a Grand Slam last year. In the last 33 minutes they accumulated 19 unanswered points and made enough of a game of it that you couldn't say they were definitively beaten until sometime inside the final 10 minutes.

And that made the game from Ireland's point of view. For all the victory would have been equally welcome, what would there have been to gain from a 40- or 50-point mauling? For Declan Kidney the strong Welsh fightback will have been of much greater benefit.

Although his side shipped heavy artillery fire, the truth was they were as impressive in defence as they had been in attack in the first half. The Ireland coach is entitled to feel he is closer to finding a team well-equipped in every department.

Kidney has come under heavy frequent fire from critics who believe he is too heavily reliant on established players and too slow in giving youth its head. Some of those criticisms have often seemed valid enough, although there is a feeling too that the coach's conservatism might not always be a bad thing. Certainly recent evidence suggests that, under Kidney, an Ireland side that might yet go places is in the sure process of gradual evolution.

Among the Six Nations debutants, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy distinguished themselves, not just for the tricks they brought out wide, but just as memorably for their ability to stand up strong when Wales had the momentum and crashed into them in waves.

The biggest hits came elsewhere, of course. Seán O'Brien recorded 20-something tackles, probably the same number of carries, and that is what the Leinster openside does at his best. But when it came to the hits, neither Zebo nor Gilroy were found wanting either. In truth, no one was.

Kidney recently drew another blast of criticism when he took the captain's armband off Brian O'Driscoll and handed it to Jamie Heaslip. For all the summary bleating, yesterday's evidence suggested it won't make a jot of difference. Considering he is just back from quite a serious injury, O'Driscoll's performance in Cardiff yesterday was simply mesmeric, even by his own exalted standards, maybe up there with as good as anything he has delivered, a resounding statement in a Lions year.

And that he remains the true leader of this team was shown in the dying moments of the first half. At the time Ireland enjoyed a commanding 20-3 lead and had won a penalty not far outside their own 22-metre line.

With the clock winding down and Ireland in such a healthy position, the temptation was to let the seconds tick away and kick the ball dead. Not for O'Driscoll, however. The deposed captain had other ideas.

O'Driscoll beckoned Jonny Sexton forward, urging the out-half to deliver the ball deep into Welsh territory with enough haste that they would have time for another play. The lineout secured, several phases later Ireland had a penalty which Sexton flashed over with unerring accuracy. It wasn't a critical score, but it ensured a level of comfort in the finish Ireland might not otherwise have had.

The big screen in Cardiff is a godsend for little moments like those. Without it too, few of those present in the Millennium Stadium would have seen what exactly had happened 17 minutes earlier when Rory Best charged down a Dan Biggar clearance, fed long to Heaslip who hastily flung the ball in the direction of Zebo, who, somehow, juggled the ball into his hands and set off for the Welsh line.

It was only when the replay flashed up on screen, in crisp slow motion, that the beauty of the moment revealed itself: how Zebo with the heel of his left boot had magically kept alive a move that ended with Cian Healy dashing over the try line.

When they saw it, an astonished gasp reverberated around the stadium, the crowd realising they had witnessed something special, the flowering of a unique and precious talent.

Irish Independent

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