Thursday 14 December 2017

Sexton hits top gear as wheels come off chariot

Ireland 24 England 8

Tommy Bowe crosses for Ireland's opening try against England at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Tommy Bowe crosses for Ireland's opening try against England at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Gerry Mooney

brendan fanning at the Aviva Stadium

For the third time in the history of the Six Nations, England came to Dublin looking for a Grand Slam title -- having been ambushed in 2001 in the 'Foot and Mouth' game, as it was known, and two years later making up for it with a comprehensive victory with in what turned out to be a World Cup-winning combination, they arrived in different circumstances yesterday.

Unlike either of those games, where it was hard to see past the away team hacking up, this lot didn't spread any panic in the home ranks. So if Ireland, who came to the table with some parts of their game in pretty good order, could manage more consistency than they had achieved over the previous four games, we were in business; we would have a quality game to close what has been an ordinary Championship. What we got was very fast, very physical and, from an Irish point of view, very good.

Indeed if you were looking for reference points in this fixture then the first game between these teams in Croke Park was appropriate. This was the first time for these teams in the remodelled Lansdowne Road and appropriately Ireland brought an intensity to the game similar to 2007. It was a done deal long before the end. And in fairness to the home team they never let up, starting at a cracking pace, and finishing with a level of control that had eluded them to this point.

The sheer pace and pressure yielded an early six points through the boot of Jonny Sexton and, critically, got the crowd to fever pitch. And defensively the home team were excellent as well, holding up English attacks for turnovers. Just after the first quarter, with Ireland 6-0 ahead, we got what looked like a big moment, their second successful turnover of English ball by preventing them getting the ball to deck after the tackle, only for Sean O'Brien to spill a poor pass from Rory Best after Eoin Reddan had broken off the scrum.

It was a good position for England, far out but nicely placed -- at last -- but they could make nothing of it. Even at that early stage you could feel some of the enthusiasm fall out of them. And then they conceded a soft penalty at the scrum to allow Ireland a free pass back into England's half. Throughout, the scrum had been a massive weapon for Ireland. This time, Ireland wouldn't leave it without something to take with them.

Initially it seemed that the 'something' could be as much as seven points, but it turned out to be only three. The prospect of seven died when what would have been a record-breaking try for Brian O'Driscoll was called back for a forward pass by Tommy Bowe. Referee Bryce Lawrence was playing advantage for offside in midfield and Sexon tapped over the penalty to make it 9-0.

If the call back had unsettled Bowe he didn't have long to fret over it. Six minutes later he would be on the end of a move that had try written all over it from the moment Sexton tapped a quick penalty and attacked an English defence that was low on numbers and skating backwards. The timing couldn't have been better, for Toby Flood had just missed a handy chance to open England's account with a 25-metre penalty after 26 minutes.

Under intense pressure however they couldn't gather the restart and between Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan we got a flashback to the days when footrushes were a popular and effective tactic. In this case England put themselves in trouble for getting ahead of the kicker after a scrambled clearance, about 30 metres from their own line, and when the penalty was moved back to the point of infringement, they were desperately short on manpower.

With that momentum behind him, Bowe was unstoppable and Ireland had a 14-0 lead. Flood pegged it back with a straight-on penalty on 31 minutes, but Sexton wiped that one out with another three points that was a direct result of good pressure. Again it was a chase from Bowe, of a Sexton kick, that started it, and after England had successfully bundled David Wallace into touch, Ben Youngs lost the run of himself and fired the ball into the crowd. It would cost him, not just with 10 minutes in the bin, but by being replaced when his sentence was complete.

Ireland held that lead until the break and came out in the new half looking to take full advantage of the numerical advantage which had six minutes to run. They picked up pretty much where they had left off in the first period. As it happened, their period with the extra man had just come to an end when O'Driscoll finally set foot in record territory as the highest try-scorer in Championship history. It had a touch of good fortune about it, but for a team who have been short-changed in that department in this campaign, they'll see that as appropriate.

Cian Healy got the first slice, collecting an English overthrow to attack from 15 metres out, and that firmly established Ireland's position. They attacked right before cutting back and after O'Driscoll had fed Donncha O'Callaghan he doubled around, collected again, then the second-row's popped pass had gone to ground. O'Driscoll hared over in the corner and, with Sexton nailing the kick, Ireland had a match-winning lead at 24-3.

The almost inevitable interruption came from replacement Steve Thompson, who was hardly on the field a minute when he collected a Reddan pass, aimed at Wallace who had stepped out of the lineout, and managed to evade capture even though he was some 40 metres from safety. Remarkably Jonny Wilkinson, another replacement, missed the conversion.

It was around then that the rain came, militating against a successful England chase, and when Ronan O'Gara appeared off the bench in the final 10 minutes, they knew it was over. His first touches were first class and pinned England back in their own 22. That's where they finished.

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