Monday 23 April 2018

Tony Ward: Greatest team performance of Kidney era

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The purists will not agree but on Saturday, in the most vile conditions in the Twickenham pressure cauldron, Declan Kidney's team produced one of the great Irish wins in this remarkable tournament.

There may not have been anything tangible to show for it -- as in Triple Crown, championship or Grand Slam -- but given what this squad went through in Paris, the substance of the retort and the quality of the victory was right up there with the very best ever. And I don't make that assertion lightly.

The French beat us comprehensively, but I repeat what I said two weeks ago in response to those commentators so dismissive of our resilience in the latter part of that game: "What followed was another French caning but we did stand up when France might well have ripped us apart. That does count for something because what it shows is a desire that still runs deep within this squad, even in extreme adversity."

Some of those so quick to write Ireland off then will no doubt be eulogising them now; the truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.

And let's make one thing clear: this wasn't winning ugly. Far from it. This was a classic case of adapting to the opposition and to the conditions, adhering to a preordained gameplan and seeing it through. Far from ugly, it was appropriate and assertive.

We may not have squeezed the living daylights out of the English as the French did to the Welsh in the opening half in Cardiff the previous evening, but in terms of sensible and controlled application through well thought out, well executed, heads-up rugby, this was arguably the most complete team performance of the Kidney era.

It provided proof that, despite the French reality-check, this is a gifted group with the ability, the desire and -- more than anything -- the raw bottle to bounce back after taking a loaded one to the chin.

The tackle count, the defensive line, the work ethic, the lineout, the tactical appreciation and of course the icing (three brilliantly manufactured and clinically executed tries) were all top-notch. With far less possession, we had much more meaningful territory and always appeared more likely than England to translate it into points.

In the end, just four points separated the sides. In truth a single one will do at Twickenham every time, but when you outscore the country with the greatest rugby-playing resources by three tries to one on their own patch, then there is genuine reason to reflect on a job well done.

But much more than that, it was a pivotal point in the build up to New Zealand 2011. To have lost to France and England in successive games would have had the doubters queuing up big-time. How they reacted, individually and collectively, to defeat in France, told us everything about Kidney and this squad.

They are alone now in the hunt for yet another Triple Crown and, though dependent on Italy and England, are still in with a shout of back-to-back Six Nations titles. The championship is France's to lose, but this win and the manner of it was a massive statement for Ireland.

Every one contributed, but Paul O'Connell in the lineout, Stephen Ferris and Tomas O'Leary just about everywhere and Tommy Bowe -- whether on the kick-chase or in pure no-nonsense finishing -- wrought havoc. There may be other wingers with more polished attacking skills but, in terms of the total package, Bowe is as close as it gets to the real deal.

Jonathan Sexton will be disappointed with his goalkicking return, but he too stepped up to the challenge in the most positive way. This was a level up in pressure and intensity from facing even the world champion Springboks in the autumn, but the young out-half took the step up so assuredly.

His reading and execution of the kick for Bowe's try and the pass for Keith Earls' was pure class.

Ronan O'Gara came on and finished the job admirably, but Sexton provided clear indication that Kidney has some serious soul-searching ahead when picking his pivotal playmaker going forward.

But before thoughts turn to the Wales game in a fortnight's time, let us all wallow in a proud Irish performance, one to truly rank with the very, very best.

Irish Independent

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