Tuesday 25 June 2019

Relentless green machine powers on

Conor Murray leaps highest in celebration after Sean Cronin’s try. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray leaps highest in celebration after Sean Cronin’s try. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Paradise postponed; a coronation delayed.

Everything seems a little topsy-turvy; Ireland have won, yet we must wait for their title to be confirmed and when they do that we know there is another pause as the Grand Slam countdown begins.

Theirs is a relentless pursuit, suiting a team whose character is predicated upon remorselessness.

The slowly unspooling inevitability of events in Paris have confirmed what most in European rugby had suspected for quite some time; Ireland are truly its most dominant force, with a third Six Nations title in five seasons.

They want more, though. Perhaps it is what separates the sportsperson from the mortals who have already fled the empty stadium to drink in the success of the evening.

Jonathan Sexton has not been handed a medal this evening, so the sense of achievement seems oddly devoid of true substance.

Ireland’s Rob Kearney and Scotland’s Ryan Wilson compete for a high ball at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland’s Rob Kearney and Scotland’s Ryan Wilson compete for a high ball at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"It's a bit muted in there," confirms His Master's Voice, at once thumbing in the direction of his team's dressing-room before pointing the way forward to the next task.

The Master sits alongside. If one didn't know them, they appear for all the world like a couple of estate agents desperate to conclude their business here as quickly as possible. There's always a next job.

Joe Schmidt had lost his voice before the match; bellowing out one precise, technical correction too many during the elaborate warm-up drill.

Funny how these pivotal days suck some life from him; we recall a November clean sweep when he completed his afternoon's shift, all the while blissfully unaware that his appendix was threatening to explode.

Ireland have given everything, but still there is more.

Despite the statistical confirmation of success, Sexton disarms all of us with a reminder of what has not yet been earned.

"I have never won the Triple Crown," he says. Sexton appreciates his rugby history and knows just what is at stake in next week's trip to the old Cabbage Patch.

"You'd be lying if you said otherwise," confirms the on-field interpreter of Schmidt's genius.

"Declan Kidney told me a few years ago that I was just as much a part of it as everyone else back in 2009 when I was in the bibs. I definitely didn't feel that way.

"But I remember some of the talks that were made around those times, the O'Connells, the O'Driscolls, the O'Garas, guys who were trying to achieve this for 10 years.

"You could tell by their speeches and by their actions that season how much it meant to them and they had to drag along guys like Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, these young guys coming through.

"For us it's about trying to drag those young guys along, they probably think they are going to get lot of opportunities, but as I know it doesn't work out like that.

"I remember playing Scotland in Croke Park for a Triple Crown in 2010 and almost taking it for granted. I thought 'ah, a Triple Crown, I'll have plenty of more opportunities for this'. And I still haven't won a Triple Crown.

"You've got to take these opportunities with both hands when they come."

Sexton always has his eye on the prize; when he, and presumably the agitated Schmidt in the stands, sensed that this game was veering from the precisely planned nature of its charted course, the out-half assumed control.

Rory Best may be the captain of this Ireland team, but Sexton is its true leader.

Just before half-time, Ireland were camped in their own 22, having arrived there thanks to a careless Tadhg Furlong off-load at the other end of the field, from where the carefree Scots had sprinted in double-quick time.

Scotland had been invited to continue playing the game they wanted to play because Ireland had been inveigled into doing so themselves.

Ireland don't always want to play rugby and they particularly don't want to play it in their own half. They want to do so on their own terms.

And so, as Ireland teetered towards half-time, Sexton asserted authority.

The Scots - again - had messed up their attack and Ireland's forwards, with a knock-on advantage, were perhaps laying the platform for an extended passage of ball retention.

Then Johnny barked. "Scrum!" And so his team stopped playing, took the set-piece and booted the ball out of play.

Stop and reset.

The hapless, unnerved Scots promptly spilled once more and within seconds Ireland were held up over the try-line. Soon, they were over it.

Game, set and championship match.

It may not be pretty to watch, but it is pretty effective and yet, as the stadium itself seemed to sway from side to side as Garry Ringrose swung those elusive hips, always a reminder that beauty is where you find it.

At this level, sport is about the best, not the best-looking.

And, though many may carp about the overly-proscriptive nature of the process, how can one not thrill to the weaving runs of renaissance man Keith Earls or the enduring silky running of Rob Kearney.

Ireland have yet to win a Grand Slam, but it can be argued that even though they are not sprinkled with the stardust of the famed holy trinity of an O'Driscoll, O'Gara and an O'Connell, they are a much better team.

A record 11th successive win was almost a forgotten statistical quirk on an afternoon of delayed triumph, but surely destiny is now calling for them to confirm their superiority against England's creaking chariot.

And the promise of much more to come thereafter.

Like the blissfully ignorant Jacob Stockdale, one of several players who have yet to taste championship defeat, who clutches intercepts with a feverishly hawkish hunger.

This all seems so easy for him.

He may have the chance to become this championship's record try-scorer next week and, even in a week when so many fools and money are divorced, few would back against him doing so.

His rapacious appetite courses through the squad.

Not only will Schmidt demand it, but the players will of themselves.

"I've only been under him," says CJ Stander. "He's one of the best I've worked with. He's a guy who demands greatness all the time.

"He wants us to be the best every week and you want to perform for the lads and for him. He's a guy who asks you to pay attention to everything you do and make sure you are mentally and physically prepared for the game."

"We want to do something special as a group," says Dan Leavy.

"We have an opportunity to do that next week. Last year England came over to us and we tried to muddy up their celebrations, so they will try to do the same to us. We have to be prepared."

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