Monday 11 December 2017

Ireland uncover aggressive swagger

Stander insists targeted Sexton would never milk penalty as Earls hails show of defiance

David Kelly

David Kelly

There were more swinging handbags in this smart corner of Dublin 4 than you'd find at the sale in Michael Guineys.

Grown, kilted men were later seen in the Waterloo bar to approach each other with even greater disregard for their own safety; and all they wanted was a hug.

The faux outrage was amusing; like complaining about all that blood in Macbeth.

The irony is that rugby has been so sanctimoniously sanitised, it remains seemingly acceptable to tackle around the neck without sanction yet letting off a few belts of steam is cause to reach for the executioner's cap.

The reaction to Devin Toner's try reflected the frustrations of a Scottish side who self-imploded while Ireland's response reflected their own exasperation at a second successive slump in major tournaments.

"Niggle is on the way out in the professional game," says Tommy O'Donnell, regretfully, you presume. "I was back to the half-way line when the Devin Toner thing kicked off..."

Johnny Sexton is tip-tackled by Scotland’s Alex Dunbar. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton is tip-tackled by Scotland’s Alex Dunbar. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland reacts after being "tip tackled" by Alex Dunbar. Photo: Getty
Sexton was also sent to the sinbin late on. Photo: Sportsfile

Jonathan Sexton outlined his own frustration and prompted a parade of tut-tutting from the bleachers; quite right, too. Then again,the out-half has suffered enough illegal assaults in this campaign to earn some faux outrage of his own.

"Johnny always gets marked," CJ Stander advises us. "It's tough on a player, like that. He always gets the big tackles and knocks, after the ball has gone.

"This is rugby; you don't milk it. If you have an injury, you lie down. I've got massive respect for Johnny. He's a tough player that would never milk a penalty like that. It's not something he would do."

The problem in rugby now is that it is hard to find out what is legal or illegal any more; Greig Laidlaw was wrestled WWE-style himself last month yet blind eyes surrounded him.

The sport is a lawless mess at times. All the while the regular car crash collisions continue to cause unfathomable difficulties for participants down the road.

And still some of us get our three-for-a-five knickers in a twist over a bit of what one son of Hawick may have hesitated to call 'argy bargy'; indeed one can hear Bill McLaren harrumph loudly from above if one deigned to use 'jiggery pokery' instead.

Thankfully, we can import vernacular from another code; Keith Earls, for one, was happy to see a bit of nark from Ireland during the half-started attempted shemozzles and melees.

After being bullied around the park by their opening three opponents, one could argue it was about time; the Highveld will not be a place for one who enjoys slavish devotion to decent etiquette.

"Yeah, it's great," enthuses Earls, scoring his 17th try in his 50th cap. "We try to show our aggression within the rules because it's so hard when everything is being picked up. It's not like the old days when you could throw a few sneaky punches.

"Scotland are a passionate country as well, they're on the up and they badly wanted a result after doing what we did to them in Murrayfield last year. So it was great to see a bit of niggle."

Ireland were just as desperate as Scotland to win, by any means necessary. A far superior Ireland should have ended the argument well before the fights started.

"I think it was just a proper Test match," says Rory Best. "It was ferocious. We were asked what our motivation would be and when you get little bits and pieces like that you see two teams that really want to win.

"Sometimes it spills over a little bit, it didn't get too out of hand but it was just two teams that desperately wanted to win and were highly motivated to win for their country and, look, there was nothing really in it."

Much of the crowd may have thought the same about what was at times a ragged, error-strewn affair but Ireland placed significant emotional investment in bowing out with a win.

Stander, perhaps struggling to emote what it has felt like to play for Ireland - and what it may feel like when he revisits his native land this summer - spilled wordless tears in the prematch team huddle.

"That motivates you to show what it means, when you see the reaction for another man to come in from another country to put on our jersey," says Earls.

"It's amazing how passionate he is about Ireland now. I suppose he didn't expect to get the reception he did when he first came over to Ireland.

"I think you'd swear he was born and raised in Limerick now, he loves the place and he's really passionate about Munster and he's extremely passionate about playing for Ireland."

Earls once took days like this for granted. He does so no longer, not just because he has seen 50 of them, more for the lament at those he has missed or not appreciated.

Best asked him to lead the team out; the young fellah might have; the humble father of two didn't blink an eye in refusal. After two years of constant injury turmoil, he knows perspective.

"It's good to prove to Joe that my body is in good shape and I'm not breaking down any more. Last year, I was in training with the boys a lot and I couldn't break into the squad.

"I suppose Joe was thinking that 'Maybe, I can't take him because he is going to break down.' It interrupts the team a small bit. So I'm delighted to get a good trot of games under my belt and I'm enjoying rugby a lot.

"I went through a few tough times over the last few years. When you're injured, you spend a lot of time thinking. You're wondering if you're good enough. If your body is up to it.

"Over the last two years, I get back from injury and I'm kinda like, if I go into a ruck, is my knee going to go again?, or, if I take off or sidestep is my knee going to go?

"Look, I put the work in. I sacrificed it. And maybe I did something that I didn't do in the early days when I took it all for granted a little. I started to look after myself. And I suppose having kids motivates you and you're trying to play for them and trying to make a living for them."

More resounding tests of character than the last fortnight now await Ireland and regaining their pride was a non-negotiable starting point.

"If we are taking anything away it is the fact that if we don't turn up we are going to get our heads kicked in," says Andrew Trimble of the forbidding assignment on South African turf where Irish sides traditionally crumble.

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