One of the things that stood out for me in Ireland’s Grand Slam celebrations on Saturday was the restrained emotion from Joe Schmidt in his post-match interview. It’s not unusual for players or coaches to find it difficult to contain their emotions after a big win, but it confirmed a long-held view of mine about Ireland’s head coach: that he is fully invested in the players that are under his care and that what he does is more than a job, he has a connection with his squad that goes beyond analysing performances and demanding higher standards.
That’s not to say that every other coach in this tournament is a mercenary, but there is something special about the bond that the New Zealander shares with his charges. Not unlike Declan Kidney, Schmidt did his best not to impose himself on the celebratory proceedings, instead letting the players enjoy the moment they had worked so hard for. It was an act of selflessness that epitomised the character of the man, and Ireland are lucky to have ever gotten hold of him in the first place.
Rory Best, too, struggled to hold back the tears in his post-match interview, and in his case, it was delightful to see Ireland’s most under-appreciated player get the recognition he deserves. The Ulster hooker has spent years doing the dirty work for his country and while Irish supporters never took to him the same way they did to Jerry Flannery, watching him walking around Twickenham with his children lifting the trophies he and his team had won was a heart-warming sight that demonstrated that there is still room for sentiment in professional sport. Seeing two of the most likeable people involved in the top level of the game get the reward for their efforts was satisfying and moving in equal measure.
Laying Down A Marker
The biggest worry that Irish supporters had going into this game was that their team would suffer a case of dry throat. The opening minutes showed that wasn’t going to happen; there was no shyness about Ireland’s early carrying, and they hammered into English tacklers with an intensity that never dropped for the 80 minutes. Ireland’s pack were vicious with ball in hand, with Dan Leavy, Iain Henderson and CJ Stander standing out in this regard:
Ireland have found go-forward ball hard to come by in their recent visits to Twickenham, but being stopped on or before the gain line wasn’t an option that their forwards gave themselves against an English pack that are feared for their size and tackle technique. Ireland’s attacking play wasn’t all about bludgeon; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and the players outside them probed the English defence all afternoon (Murray’s pass down the blind side for Stockdale’s try was a thing of beauty), but for the first time ever, Ireland bullied an English pack on their home patch.
It would have been easy to be over-awed by the occasion and let England win the collisions, but Ireland had their heads on straight for this one. If you weren’t sure where they were mentally, Sexton’s refusal to leave the field because of a serious blood injury was the only reminder you needed:
Ireland’s warrior out-half simply wouldn’t allow his body breaking down to prevent him from playing a central role in this victory, and his courage in adversity is just as valuable as the many talents he possesses.
Soldiers Of Fortune
Ireland were always going to need the 50/50 moments to go their way to get a win Twickenham, and there was an element of luck in all three of their tries. Garry Ringrose capitalised on a favourable roll of the ball (not to mention the officials missing the knock-on from the superb Rob Kearney), CJ Stander’s score came down to millimetres and Jacob Stockdale’s vital try to end the first half wouldn’t have been scored if the in-goal area was the normal size:
At the same time, Ireland were extremely clinical in how they took their chances and for the ball to bounce favourably, the opportunity had to be created in the first place. Not all of the refereeing decisions benefited Ireland, either; Elliot Daly’s neck roll on Kearney deserved a yellow card (as did Joe Marler’s late hit on Joey Carbery) and the challenge from Chris Robshaw on Murray after the scrum-half had kicked the ball warranted further inspection.
On balance, Bundee Aki was lucky to escape a card for his shoulder charge on Daly, and if the TMO had taken a look at Jacob Stockdale’s aerial collision with Jonny May, the Ulster winger could have been in trouble. Despite Angus Gardner’s consistency in being lenient with these incidents, his refereeing of the breakdown was a source of frustration.
It feels pedantic to complain about something like officiating when Ireland have made history, but on top of being really slow to call a choke tackle when either team had held a ball carrier up off the floor for a long time, the Australian referee was guilty of letting England interfere with Ireland’s possession illegally by putting their hands in the ruck and going off their feet, whereas the visitors were penalised instantly for losing their footing in this area. It further underlines the scale of the task that Ireland faced and the impressive nature of their victory; hometown referring happens even in monumental Test matches, yet it didn’t stop Ireland from winning well.
Can’t Keep A Good Man Down
With a number of their players participating in last year’s Lions tour of New Zealand, there was the possibility that Ireland could burn out at the tail end of this Championship. That didn’t happen, though, and their intensity, concentration levels and defensive organisation were a level above what England produced on the day, and they were as physical in the tackle in the fourth quarter as they were in the first:
It would have been nice if the game had ended with Jonny May being bundled into touch, but overall, Ireland can be happy with the manner in which they repeatedly pushed England across the field and realigned quickly to plug the gaps when the home side put phases together in the second half:
Ireland were stretched when the ball went wide in both of the above examples, but the hunger from their players to race across and close down the space was astonishing when you take into account the unbelievable punishment they had taken from England throughout the game. Jason Cowman deserves huge credit for Ireland being fit and firing at the end of the tournament. It would have been understandable if the players had given in when the lungs started to burn, and although a certain amount of their resilience in this fixture owed to mental strength, their physical state couldn’t have been better.
Maybe it was down to Andy Farrell’s in-depth knowledge of his former team, but limiting a team with the attacking potency that England have to 15 points on their home ground is a remarkable achievement in and of itself. It’s all the more admirable when you consider that out of the three tries England scored, the first came during a purple patch when Ireland were down to 14 men, the second was partly due to Jordan Larmour defending in midfield and the third was a late consolation. It’s a part of their game that has been heavily criticised all Championship, but like everything else they did on the day, it functioned near-perfectly when required.
The New Breed And The Man With The Midas Touch
The point was made after the game that there weren’t the same levels of ecstasy from the players and management in the celebrations as there was in Cardiff nine years ago. A lot of that has to do with the 2009 Grand Slam being an exorcism of the demons of RWC 2007, as well as a group of gifted players finally realising their potential after falling short of a clean sweep in the preceding years.
It wasn’t as if Ireland’s players were emotionless on Saturday, you could see the joy in their smiles and their tears, but what they achieved was a standard that they now have to match (and improve upon), not a culmination of a few exceptional players’ careers. This was the first Six Nations that James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour played in, and it was also the first Championship where Dan Leavy started a game. They all have long international careers ahead of them, and it’s terrifying to think how good they will be when they hit their peak.
After securing a Grand Slam in style in the toughest venue in the competition, what complaints could you make about Ireland? That they didn’t push on and score a bonus point try in the second half when they had the chance? Or that they let in a late try? It would be remiss to ignore the fact that England are a mess at present, but with the quality that Ireland have in their squad and a trophy-magnet coach like Joe Schmidt, more Grand Slams aren’t outside the realms of possibility and neither is a World Cup semi-final in Japan next year.