Sport Six Nations

Monday 19 March 2018

Ireland prove to be a team for all weather

Not even Mother Nature can stop this side's charge towards another title, writes David Kelly

David Kelly

David Kelly

Such a sweet symphonic rapture has rarely filled the Dublin air. It is, at first, a placid sense of joy which settles itself upon the crowd as it takes a second to gulp in the merits of consummate victory.

For some, it has felt like a more difficult and demanding joy, but the outcome is undeniably the same. Ecstasy.

No more than against the French a fortnight earlier, England have been comprehensively dismantled in all facets of play.

Dublin witnessed four seasons in an afternoon and an Irish team that is slowly proving itself to be a team for all weather.

Greatness is now writ large upon their breasts - it is for them to now seize the multitude of opportunities that lie in wait.

No matter that Jamie Heaslip is scratched from play, or Sean O'Brien is sent tumbling from the field - deputies Jordi Murphy and Tommy O'Donnell play as if to this manor born.

Joe Schmidt's side are forged with such an unbending will and iron commitment that even mother nature itself, it seems, must be forced to wilt under the suffocating severity of their ceaseless spirit.

A year since this squad slackly allowed a 10-3 50th minute lead against the English subside into disappointing defeat, yesterday they reached the same moment staring in the mirror at virtually the same scenario - 12-3 ahead.


This time, they would not be spooked by their own reflection. "We spoke of that at half-time," says Robbie Henshaw. They shall speak of it no more.

This time, the championship holders ground the same opponents into back-pedalling submission, kicking for home with the relentless momentum of the thoroughbred performers they have undoubtedly become. For Ireland are now an unbreakable collective, an irrepressible force of nature.

"We are bending, not breaking," declares O'Donnell.

Such is the cohesion within this squad that one of the first-half highlights in open play witnessed his deftest sleight of hand release Henshaw on a slaloming run.

It is, Schmidt reminds us later, a play to which the Tipperary man was hitherto oblivious and yet he executed it with the precision of a master craftsman.

Here is unpredictability and yet England alluded many, many times to the fact that Ireland kicked 44 times from open play; there is a sense of conceited envy in assertions that Ireland remain a stolidly predictable force.

"I wouldn't say we are predictable," refutes O'Donnell, whose explosion into the game utterly undermined the increasingly redundant argument.

"Joe thinks up some great plays and he has ways of exposing players, and he is great the way he studies the game. I wouldn't say we are predictable, we are just incredibly good at what we do. Then it is all about winning the 50-50s and who is willing to go for it."

Ireland's only conceit to predictability is their steady accumulation of increasing defiance against all-comers who seek to threaten them.

So too their inexorable commitment to maintaining an unceasing graph of improvement, moment by moment, game by game.

"We'd built it up as a really big game, a really important game for us," says captain Paul O'Connell, whose only uncertainly remains whether or not this served to be his swansong on home soil in championship fare.

"Then to go on and execute like we did and do so many positive things like we did, particularly in the first half where I think we were held up over the line twice. That was a great feeling.

"I never thought I'd see 19-3 on the scoreboard in the build-up over the last few days. It was great to get the lead to 3-6-9 points, then 12 points. And once you're lucky enough to tag a try on to that, it's a long way back for the England team and they probably have to force it a little bit."

This is where Ireland's unbreakable will smashes the spirit of their opponents - by admitting no errors in their own game, they force their opponents to litter their performance with a succession of their own errors. It is stifling and suffocating for opponents, ultimately liberating and emancipating for themselves.

"Control is fickle," relates Schmidt, but that of his team remains reassuringly constant as they detour to Cardiff and the fourth leg of what now smells like an irrepressible march towards a defining Grand Slam.

And, in World Cup year, who knows what.

"There hasn't been a whole lot of chat about it. Joe said we'd equalled a record Ireland had before. What does it give us? A certain amount of confidence," says O'Connell of a run last achieved in 2003 before that side's Grand Slam hopes were terminated abruptly by England.

"At 19-3 up, I wouldn't say we sat back but they're a good side who were always going to come at us.


"That's what they did and it was a bit disappointing from that point of view but there's a lot of things we're improving on, game on game.

"That's a big part of Joe's philosophy I'm sure the staff do in the privacy of their meetings but we don't really look at the big picture, we just try and improve game by game and championship by championship."

O'Connell will win his 100th cap against Wales - a career of under-achievement at World Cups remains an obstacle to be vaulted but giddy enthusiasm does not sit well with this team.

Should they ever stumble, their fall is temporary.

"If you are on the ground for too long, there is someone telling you to get up," says O'Donnell.They will for once, asserts Schmidt, enjoy this moment. There will be little pause before assessing the next.

"It's close to the best team I've played in" adds O'Connell. "The way we're preparing is a lot different to what we've done throughout my time here. The game by game focus suits us, suits Irish teams, Irish people.

"I'm sure the coaches look at the bigger picture, but for us, we know how the preparation for Wales will go. There'll be a pretty brutal review of this game and we'll be put under pressure to prepare certain things for the Welsh game. That will be the sole focus for the players and it works well for us."

There is little evidence to suggest such perpetual, whirring wheels of industry can invite any impediment to halt their inexorable glory march towards true ecstasy.

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