Sunday 25 February 2018

Outhalf stands tall as Ireland come good

Ireland 24 England 8

Ireland' s Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland' s Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile

We were looking to the Grand Slam games of 2001 and 2003 for reference points here, but there was a more recent meeting between the sides that was more appropriate.

Remember the sheer intensity and emotion of the 2007 game in Croke Park? Well the backdrop to this picture was nothing like as detailed; no concern about whether or not anthems would be respected, or if public order offences would overtake technical infringements on the field. Rather the issue at a throbbing Aviva Stadium was if Ireland could put into action what they have been talking about since they stuttered past Italy at the start of this campaign. And they borrowed from that Croke Park game in doing so.

It was fast and furious and with enough control to make it unstoppable. By the time the best bit about Ireland's game -- the scrum -- started to fade, the game was done and dusted and anything England were going to get at that stage was window dressing. And when you come looking for a Grand Slam, window dressing doesn't quite cut it.

The man-of-the-match award went to Jonny Sexton, which was appropriate given the attention this position has received this season and the way Declan Kidney has shuffled his players here. Sexton was terrific, largely because he was given ball of such quality that it far surpassed much of the diet he or Ronan O'Gara had been living off to this point. And this was down to some stellar performances in the pack.

The fact that the scrum -- where England carried real menace -- was going to be a source of comfort for Ireland was massive. Unlike Cardiff where set-scrums were rarities, we had 14 of them yesterday and it was as if any time referee Bryce Lawrence gave Ireland advantage they knew they could spill the ball and go back and restart on their own terms. What a luxury against a team looking to impose themselves up front. Cian Healy -- who looked wired for this -- Rory Best and Mike Ross had a really good day out.

The lineout too was functional, and this healthy state of Ireland's set piece was the toe hold for them to attack England. And when they did, all three back rowers were at the heart of it. England knew all about the importance of closing down Sean O'Brien but while he was never rampaging, equally they never quite managed it.

Neither could they keep Brian O'Driscoll away from the honour of becoming the record try-scorer in the history of the Championship. On 22 minutes he appeared to have ticked that box only to be called back for a forward pass from the excellent Tommy Bowe whose chasing of kicks was as important as his play on the ball. When the captain got over early in the second half however, the conversion of which put Ireland 24-3 ahead, it wasn't just a milestone for him but confirmation that a millstone had been removed from his team. They were never going to surrender such a lead to a team who were still struggling, more than half way through, to get into the game.

What a disappointment for England. They had been admired beforehand for all the things Ireland couldn't do in this Championship: be consistent in key areas. The Grand Slam was gone from early and when they started shuffling the deck not long into the second half it looked like desperate stuff.

They had never managed to get off the back foot. The time to do this was in the first quarter when Sexton was nudging Ireland into a six-point lead with two penalties -- Ireland won the count here 9-5 -- but they were confounded by Ireland's ability to win turnovers by holding up the attacker and turning it into a maul.

This has been a contentious area for Ireland this season and for the first time yesterday it looked like a tactic that they can sustain. The downside to it is that if it goes wrong it's very hard to set your defensive line quickly, but it was only on the front foot that sometimes Ireland lost their shape. In the first half this seemed to be because of the sheer pace with which they were throwing everything at England. In the second half maybe it was fatigue.

Kidney opted to stick with mostly the same players for the guts of the game and his timing of O'Gara's introduction was perfect. And what a performance by the new outhalf. His first touches, from picking up a ball made greasy by the arrival of rain after the break, to the side of the boot kick to touch in England's 22, were sheer class. By then Ireland were on a mission of containment and in the deteriorating conditions that was what was required.

The killer scores had come in the middle period of the match. On 28 minutes Sexton punished England for a lazy offside ahead of the kicker by running the ball back fast at a short-staffed defence and putting Bowe over. Ireland were 9-0 to the good when that move started, and 14 points clear when it was over. Best of all for the home team, the try came immediately after Toby Flood had pulled a handy kick which would have opened England's account.

Next came the sin-binning of the dangerous Ben Youngs for firing the ball into the crowd. Sexton took the points from the penalty and Martin Johnson took the decision not to bring Youngs back when his sentence was served.

So Ireland started the second half 17-3 clear -- Flood had succeeded with his second shot on goal -- and a man up. And after seven minutes they were 24-3 clear. Healy collected an overthrow at the tail of the line and Ireland kept a foothold until O'Driscoll scooped up a ball which Donncha O'Callaghan had left behind him and scuttled over in the corner.

The only interruption to the flow was sudden and shortlived. Replacement Steve Thompson snaffled a pass by Eoin Reddan, who otherwise had a fine game, intended for David Wallace. Much later in the day they threatened the Irish line only for Heaslip, having his best game of the campaign, to steal the ball and relieve the pressure. There was nowhere for them to go after that.

They will be sore at losing out on the Grand Slam but for Ireland that derailment was merely an aside. All season they have been telling us that they are not far away from putting it all together.

They did it here and it was very good to watch.

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