Saturday 24 March 2018

Rampant Irish deliver performance for the ages

Carelessness and impatience vanish from Ireland display, writes John O'Brien

It is a sporting truism that every occasion has a context and atmosphere all of its own. It was too tempting to watch Ireland routing England yesterday, gleefully depriving them of another Grand Slam, and wonder why they can't play with such confidence and endeavour all the time. But this was a performance for the ages. Had Ireland been half as good all tournament, they'd likely be celebrating another Slam. Days like these don't flow from a tap, however.

In ways it seemed too good to be true. When the interval afforded a welcome breather, Ireland led 17-3 but it might easily have been twice that. In the previous five minutes, David Wallace had made two copy-cat dashes for the line on either side of the field. Either or both might have been tries, but the failure to convert didn't seem to matter. Ireland were rampant and England's young team was in shreds. Was this really happening?

For Ireland, the turnaround from seven days previously in Wales was stunning. The carelessness and impatience that blighted that and earlier games had vanished. Their stubborn insistence on surrounding tackled opponents en masse was noticeably absent and Ireland were the better for it. They made tackles and rolled away, happy to let England prod and weave for a few yards. They conceded fewer penalties than before and yet still produced more turnovers. Eureka.

To measure the sheer scale of the carnage, look no further than the 50th minute. By then Brian O'Driscoll had finished Ireland's second try, Cian Healy, of all people, was trying to execute clever forward chips. Martin Johnson, England's ice-cool coach, had removed his half-back pairing of Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, the supposed heart-beat of his team, as well as two of the front-row they had expected to give them a winning platform. Beaten on every front.

For England the occasion was simply too great. Johnson's side isn't all that young in years but averages little more than 20 caps between them and their passage through a demonstrably weak Six Nations fooled them into thinking the absence of key figures like Courtney Lawes and Mike Tindall was more than compensated for with the flowering of talents like Alex Corbisiero and Matt Banahan. The giant outside centre spent his day running into the human wall provided by O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy. The old veterans ceded no ground.

It is possible that England underestimated Ireland's resolve to deliver a big performance, but would it have mattered? It's only four years since England crashed to an even bigger humiliation on an historic day in Croke Park, but they reckoned they had come a huge distance in the meantime and, under Johnson's guiding hand, built a team capable of not just dominating in Europe but of taking on the world in New Zealand in autumn.

The English coach had spoken of the famous day in 2003 when he led his team to the wrong side of the red carpet at Lansdowne Road before filleting Ireland to claim a coveted Grand Slam. In each of the previous three seasons, they had been deprived of the Slam on the last day of the tournament and nothing now could stop them. "It was ridiculous what the team had been through," Johnson said. "We had to win it."

Yesterday, though, the imperative lay with Ireland. A proud team who had been at odds with themselves and heavily criticised in the press and by so-called supporters, realised they had reached a point where something had to give.

All along they had offered reassurances that there was nothing fundamentally amiss. That they were a game away from seeing things click. Time eventually told they were as good as their word.

And how they clicked. When Banahan claimed Flood's first kick-off ahead of Donncha O'Callaghan and their first attack led to a scrum inside Ireland's 22, you steeled yourself for a long afternoon. But Ireland's scrum held firm and moments later Jonathan Sexton had the nerve to tap a penalty instead of kicking long, in a flash, Ireland were attacking at the other end of the field.

The only surprise was that it took all of 27 minutes before Tommy Bowe finished a scintillating move to score their first try. Surprising too that for all their poise and energy, they would only add one more. Against France they scored three and still lost. And that was the sole sombre note: the realisation of how much their error-count and indiscipline had cost them. The chance of another Grand Slam.

Still, yesterday provided enough compensation to look encouragingly ahead. Not least Sexton leaving the field in the 70th minute with a broad grin on his face and the crowd standing to offer an ovation. Too often the young out-half has walked off looking glum and confused. He controlled the game superbly and kicked nearly everything in sight. All the clouds in his world had evaporated.

And when Sexton left, England still had 10 minutes of Ronan O'Gara pumping balls over their heads into their own corner to endure. By then it seemed the only risk for Ireland was in breaching the Geneva Convention.

Sunday Indo Sport

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