Tuesday 20 February 2018

David Kelly: Irish closers outwit 'finishers'

England fluff their lines as targeted Sexton has the last word on epic day

Jonathan Sexton celebrates after the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton celebrates after the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

I'm all over him! I've got him!" - March 18, Dublin, unidentified English back-row (but probably Maro Itoje).

They tried to get Jonathan Sexton all day. And they did get him - several times. But, like some courageous cartoon character who always emerges from impossibly contrived dangers, they could never quite maintain their grasp.

And so rugby immortality slipped from their greasy grip as the sky poured empathetic tears to douse their championship trophy in tiny rivulets of regret.

In focusing so much on someone else, they had forgot to focus on themselves.

A new song, its tone jarring: Swing high, sour Chariot, Coming for to carry him home.

But Sexton would not be carried home. He was home.

And he had some carrying of his own to do. When he heaved James Haskell off his feet in a choke tackle, it was the perfect response to the latter's earlier cheap, late shot.

Likewise, when England ran out of players to legally and illegally target him, they hauled Tom Wood off the bench to maintain the one element of England's game that reached any level of consistency.

Floored once more, Sexton responded by thumping the defining late score. England, who had thrown so many punches throughout their record-equalling run, now knew what it was like to be on the receiving end.

Peter O'Mahony thieved a late throw to encapsulate his dominance of ground and aerial battle; England, quite literally, couldn't lift themselves.

With no Conor Murray to fret about, they targeted the 10. First mistake.

"We could have adapted better, but a few times we let them back in the game by being a bit too high in the tackle," sighed Billy Vunipola.

Their second mistake was denying the threat of Kieran Marmion, who sniped and snapped all day. He was subservient to his master, but purposefully so.

"I knew they would probably be trying to put me and Johnny under pressure," the Connacht scrum-half said after his first Six Nations start.

"I could definitely hear them at all the rucks and stuff, giving me a good bit of verbal pressure. The thing is to just try and ignore that. I knew it was coming and you just have to get on with it and do my job.

"You can hear them shouting: 'I'm all over him, I've got him.' I guess it's just a way of putting people off and you just have to try and block that out.

"I guess it probably worked in our favour. They were giving away cheap penalties and Johnny has to try and wear that and get on with it."

Rory Best risked another high tackle as he confronted the remarkably liberal referee Monsieur Garces. "I'll get it in the neck from Joe!" he pleaded.

The referee shuffled off into his own Ooh La La Land; if he was a policeman and happened upon the final scene in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, he would have merely shrugged and issued a fine for littering.


England have prided themselves on a narrative that has seen them close out so many tight games, but on this day they couldn't negotiate the bottom line on the page.

Jones has flooded all with belief, never more so than among those who don't start games - the "finishers", as he calls them.

Except they couldn't seal the deal. Instead, Ireland's closers trumped England's finishers, despite some inexperience and a debutant, Andrew Conway, forced to play a full (and fine) half. England expected, but instead expired.

"Yeah, I had so much confidence in the boys that were coming on," said Vunipola, reflecting his coach's instinct that England, as they had done 18 times before, would find a way to win.

"Some of the boys who came on for them did very well," added Vunipola, graciously.

However, rugby, like any ball game, depends primarily on how you start, rather than how you finish.

And England never started as they intended to go on. Instead, Ireland dictated the terms of ferocious engagement and they were more in tune with the conditions, the atmosphere, the mood.

For all their advancement under Jones since their disastrous World Cup under Stuart Lancaster, they are definitively not the finished article. Yet.

"In times gone by we'd have lost games where we were behind at times and not necessarily playing the best kind of rugby," said Haskell.

"But we've learnt to do that. Today we didn't get a handle on it because we were our own worst enemies. I don't take anything away from Ireland because they were the better side."

And so, as they had done against Australia, Ireland ridiculed the relative disparity in resources.

"It is so important with the injuries that you have real depth," explained Conway.

"The Test arena is a pretty hostile place and when you have five games in seven weeks you are going to get bodies going down.

"The only way you can find out about lads is if they have that opportunity."

This revealed that they should be given that opportunity even more.

As Jones observed, it's better to uncover fallibility, and resourcefulness, now than at a World Cup - as Ireland know only too well to their cost.

For all the defiance, England still emerged with the title. Ireland earned the status, again, as party-poopers. It was a slightly pyrrhic victory that shines a light on nagging inconsistencies.

They now must propel themselves back into the eager hunt for silverware after three tournament blanks.

"I'm going to have some chocolate!" Vunipola said when asked how he will celebrate.

For him, and England, some just deserts. Ireland's appetite for destruction has them sated, again, for now. They must be hungry for much, much more.

Irish Independent

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