The four pillars of a truly momentous rugby year

These are the four spine-tingling moments that will live long in the memory of Donal Lenihan

Timing is everything in sport and, after an incredible year for Ireland’s national side, it will be another 10 months before we know for certain if Joe Schmidt succeeded in having the current crop of extremely talented Irish players at their peak for the World Cup in Japan.

Reporting and commentating on the events of the last year, from a variety of venues across the world, was more memorable still for the four spine-tingling moments that will live long in the memory of this writer.

February 3: Stade de France, Paris

With three minutes to go in Ireland’s opening game in the Six Nations championship, all the talk during the build-up to the tournament of a final-round Grand Slam face-off against England was set to implode. Ireland were already on the back foot, trailing by a point. France had the opportunity to put the game to bed when they were awarded a penalty off a scrum just outside Ireland’s twenty-two. Anthony Belleau’s kick shaved the left-hand upright.

Waiting behind the posts, Johnny Sexton was already plotting his next move. He spoke to Fergus McFadden and told him that the subsequent drop out was going to his side. In mid-flight, Iain Henderson intercepted, but at least Ireland had retained possession 70m from the French goal line.

What happened next is the stuff of folklore — the ultimate team drop-goal. Every single Irish player had an involvement, be it a kick, a pass, a carry or a cleanout in setting up field position for Sexton to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Forty phases after Henderson gained possession and with the match clock two minutes in the red, Sexton dropped back and prepared to pull the trigger. I was directly in line with him in the stand as he waited for Conor Murray to deliver the perfect pass. We all knew what was coming.

As the ball careered through the air, time stood still. Sexton made perfect contact with the ball spinning, end over end but, would it make it from a distance of 45m? After what seemed an eternity, the kick sailed over the crossbar. The French commentators banged the desk in frustration. For us — utter exuberance.

In the heat of battle, Sexton delivered, as he would continue to do for the rest of the year. From what would have been a shattering defeat against an unfancied French side, victory filled the team with belief and they were on their way. One kick rescued a win from the jaws of defeat to launch an incredible sequence of results. Ireland were up and running.

March 17: Twickenham, London

On an arctic day at England’s rugby headquarters, Ireland set out to capture only a third-ever Grand Slam on St Patrick’s Day of all days. England, on the back of a poor Six Nations campaign to that point — having lost to Scotland and France in the previous two rounds — were out to spoil Ireland’s ambitions, having been on the receiving end in Dublin the previous year when chasing Grand Slam glory themselves.

The game was decided in a sequence of play, just prior to half-time, that encapsulated just how far this Irish team had travelled. After the perfect start when tries from Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander enabled Ireland sprint into a 0-14 lead, Peter O’Mahony was sin-binned for collapsing a maul.

Absorbing massive pressure, land-locked in their own 22 and reduced to 14 men, Elliot Daly scored to haul England back into the contest. With a minute left to the break, O’Mahony returned. At this point, Joey Carbery was on as a temporary replacement for Johnny Sexton. Ireland needed to consolidate. As the clock turned to red and protecting a 5-14 lead, a relieving penalty afforded Ireland the chance to finish the half there and then, and regroup at the break.

Ireland captain Rory Best thought otherwise. He decided to keep playing and took the opportunity from the penalty to set up an attacking lineout. Past Irish teams would have gone for the easier option and called a halt to proceedings. From his resultant throw, Carbery called a midfield set up which created a glimmer of space out wide for try-scoring machine Jacob Stockdale. In a precursor of what he would deliver later in the year against the All Blacks, Stockdale chipped over the English cover and scored an amazing try, facilitated by an oversized in-goal area.

To add insult to injury for the English, Carbery converted from the touchline. Ireland sprinted to the dressing room with a 16-point lead. It was game over at that point. To have the confidence to do that, having just endured the pressure of having to defend for a long period, down a man and with Sexton being treated on the sideline, said everything about the mentality of these players. They were not interested in the easy option.

June 23: Allianz Stadium, Sydney

The final international to be played at the Allianz Stadium before its demolition hosted a record for the venue, with 44,085 in attendance. It felt as if all bar the 85 were Irish, such was the support for the tourists chasing a first series win in Australia in 39 years.

That Irish presence, especially those stationed in the stand directly behind the goal line, as Peter O’Mahony’s men were forced to defend frantically over the final two minutes of a pulsating game, were inspirational throughout.

To have that level of support, playing 11,000 miles from home, is inspirational. A Sexton penalty with only two minutes left to play extended Ireland’s lead to four points at 16-20. It meant the Wallabies now had to score a try to win a series that was tied at one-apiece coming into the game (the only test match Ireland lost in 2018, by the way).

After a long and punishing season, especially for the Leinster contingent who had captured a domestic and European double, the visitors were out on their feet. Australia sensed it and threw everything at Ireland with Israel Folau winning the restart after Sexton’s successful kick.

With possession and field position in Ireland’s 22 , the odds were stacked against Ireland, especially as Australia had dominated those two key areas after the break. Individually and collectively, Ireland’s defensive resolve was being tested to the full. The introduction of Tadhg Beirne and John Ryan off the bench was having the desired effect, but Ireland were hanging on.

Sensing that pressure, the Irish supporters situated behind that goal rose to their feet and started bellowing out The Fields of Athenry. They were willing Ireland to hang in there and keep making tackles.

To add to the drama in the final play, with the Irish scrambling in defence as Australia threatened to score out wide, a potential try-scoring pass from Wallaby out-half Bernard Foley, who was put under enormous pressure by Stockdale, failed to find Kurtley Beale lurking on the wing in a clear try-scoring position.

Foley complained bitterly that Stockdale had slapped the ball, thus giving rise to a potential penalty try. With the decision referred to the TMO, the game and the series hung in the balance. The tension was incredible even if, from my elevated position in the commentary box, I was convinced Stockdale failed to make any contact with the ball.

Sexton, acting captain with O’Mahony having been

replaced, was practically sitting on top of his nemesis, French referee Pascal Gauzere, awaiting the decision. When Gauzere repeated the words that rang through his earpiece from the TMO —

“nothing clear and obvious” — Sexton punched the air. Game over, series won. Ireland created history and an amazing Irish support played their part. Victories of that nature, so far away from home in front of people to whom it really mattered, are always even more special.

A brilliant night to be Irish in Sydney.

November 17: Aviva Stadium, Dublin

There was something in the air. You sensed it, ever before arriving at the stadium. There was a giddiness, a buzz of excitement around Ballsbridge that’s reserved for special occasions. New Zealand were in town but this time it was more a game of equals.

Having been ambushed in Chicago two years earlier when forced to field without the leading second-row pairing in the game in Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitlock, New Zealand had targeted this game before ever leaving home. This Irish side was on the rise and needed to be put back in their box.

New Zealand knew in advance that Ireland would seek to squeeze the life out of them through their possession game and their ability to play multi-phase rugby. Joe Schmidt’s template was there for all to see. A highly disciplined side that didn’t concede silly penalties and recycled the ball quickly to build up their phase play.

The most pleasing part of Ireland’s win, on the night the Aviva found its emotional soul and rocked like never before, was that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen knew what was coming but his players were unable to deal with it.

They gave it their best shot but came off second best to an Irish side who fully believed that if they executed their gameplan and kept their heads during the inevitable period of dominance New Zealand would enjoy, they would win. That’s exactly what transpired on a night that few will ever forget.

That win proved the icing on the cake for the year. The only potential downside from the historic victory is whether it has triggered a reality check and a serious wake-up call for a giant of the world game in advance of Japan 2019.

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