Johnny Sexton is the greatest Irish rugby player of all time and we are lucky to have him representing us
Great teams are capable of finding different ways to win when they have to — and Ireland had to win yesterday.
Firstly to get the silverware that this team deserve, but secondly to dispel any lingering worry that we are susceptible to pressure, especially with the World Cup the next big challenge for us.
Ireland weren’t as accurate in their handling as they normally are and at times less so in some of their breakdown work. Some passes out the back from our forwards hit the ground rather than the man and offloads were being intercepted or knocked on.
You could see that Ireland’s attacking shape had the keys to unlock England’s defence, but from phase attack we struggled to break them down with the killer pass.
Our set-piece strike plays proved to be the difference. Both came from the lineout. Ireland have used a variation of the move that led to the first try for Dan Sheehan a lot under Mike Catt and we normally attack a little wider, running lots of bodies into the opposition outhalf’s channel.
Yesterday, with the ball at the back of the maul, we sent James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park on dummy lines towards the front of the lineout, which caught the eye of the key defender that we wanted to target. And a hooker with the speed and power of Dan Sheehan can finish like a winger.
In the second half, having struggled to win the kick-tennis battle and only leading by a point, Johnny Sexton produced a beautiful cross-field kick that exploited the space left by the red-carded Freddie Steward. Ireland’s kick chase was exceptional and we held England up behind their goal line. From the scrum, Robbie Henshaw ran a great line to score the try that broke England’s spirit.
With a two-score lead Ireland settled and the space opened up everywhere. Another two tries gave us a bonus-point win.
The game wasn’t as pleasing on the eye as the French game, but it was never going to be. England don’t want to play attacking rugby anyway under Steve Borthwick but when they got pumped at home by the French last week they were always going to play the way they did.
They defended with aggression and kicked the leather off the ball whenever they won it back. It’s harder to break down defences from those contestable kicks and you have to be patient — which we were.
I loved hearing Sexton praising Andy Farrell last week and saying how one of his most consistent mantras is that everyone needs to be themselves with one caveat, that is everyone except Johnny! Farrell wants Johnny to protect himself from himself and I have no doubt that Farrell has helped Sexton become an even better leader and captain than he was. Which is saying something.
But what makes Sexton special is that he has never changed. He is always true to himself and always puts the team before his own needs. He is the greatest Irish rugby player of all time. There is no one that has done more to drive their province and their national team over such a long period of time. It was fitting that he got the individual accolade of becoming leading points scorer in the Six Nations on the day that he led us to our first Grand Slam won in Dublin.
We can only beat what’s in front of us but I think its fair to say that this year’s Six Nations was a competition with two levels — Ireland and France and then the rest.
The IRFU deserves huge credit for the money they have invested in the professional game. Money has been spent in bucket loads by many unions but the IRFU have a great strategy and lots of great people delivering that plan.
Our under 20s, under Richie Murphy, will win their own Grand Slam and the future is bright.
On Friday a brilliant Gonzaga side won their first Leinster Schools Senior Cup, beating the mighty Blackrock in a stunningly good final. Another school driving the standard up and producing more quality players.
History has shown that it’s hard to win trophy after trophy. The competition adapts and you can lose your edge. Ireland have so many strengths that I see no reason why we can’t back this trophy up with the Webb Ellis Cup this autumn. We have so many quality players at the moment and the gap between the northern and southern hemisphere has never been smaller.
In fact, the power is now in Europe. For the next few days let’s enjoy the moment and appreciate how lucky we are to have this squad represent our country.