I would wager right now that it will be a long time before a team wins this tournament again by such a wide margin, says Donal Lenihan.
To win a Six Nations championship by eight points — 11 when you tag on the additional three bonus points that come with winning a Grand Slam — says everything you need to know about just how comprehensive this campaign has been from an Irish perspective.
Those additional bonus points were included when the new system was introduced in 2017 to avoid the scenario where a team that won all five games without a four-try bonus point could be overtaken by a side that lost one game but collected additional bonus points on the way.
Ireland were so superior, in so many different facets of play, throughout this amazing journey that those additional three bonus points are only a footnote in history. I would wager right now that it will be a long time before a team wins this tournament again by such a wide margin.
From the moment Johnny Sexton struck that sweetest of drop goals, deep into injury time, to defeat France in the opening game in Paris, it was hard to avoid the feeling that Ireland’s name was all over the trophy. They have just got better and better.
To win a Grand Slam having to play France and England away from home marks this achievement above the successes of 1948 and 2009. Those years are forever
cemented in Irish rugby history and the players associated with them will always stand apart. The class of 2018 now join that elite group and have the capacity to achieve even greater things.
To win a Slam at Twickenham — the self-proclaimed home of rugby against a side rated third in the world — second to the point of their defeat by France last week — offers a big statement of where Irish rugby sits right now. To put this convincing win in perspective, England haven’t lost a Six Nations game in Twickenham since 2012 and hadn’t lost to any opposition there in the 13 tests played there under Eddie Jones.
Ireland were only given 5,000 tickets through official IRFU channels for this game but the emotional renditions of the Fields of Athenry that rang out so passionately from all corners of the stadium throughout the closing stages of the game suggests multiples of that were there.
Eventually, the England supporters lost heart and abandoned their efforts in responding with Swing Low. A St Patrick’s Day Grand Slam and the Twickenham chariots silenced all in one. It doesn’t get much better than that.
This landmark win offers so much promise for the future. The Ireland back-line that closed out this glorious day featured 22-year-old Joey Carbery at outhalf, a centre combination of Garry Ringrose (23) and Jordan Larmour (20) along with Jacob Stockdale (21) who created his own piece of history by becoming the first ever player to score seven tries in a Six Nations campaign.
Add in back up tight-head prop Andrew Porter (22) and you have the core of a team that offers such an encouraging base of sensational talent to work off for a decade to come. In a sport where experience plays such a vital role Joe Schmidt’s achievement in moulding the young guns with the more seasoned core in one campaign represents his greatest achievement.
The manner in which this team goes about its business and the clinical way it sets about recognising and exposing potential chinks in the opposition stands it apart. The opening try after only six minutes resulted directly from the identified vulnerability of Anthony Watson, a winger by trade, under the high ball.
I accept that the back three roles are very interchangeable in the modern game but some basic skills are non-negotiable.
Your No 15 must inspire confidence and command the space under the high ball as Rob Kearney has done so impressively throughout a campaign that has been a personal triumph for him. He was magnificent again Saturday.
Watson doesn’t deliver that message and when Kearney put him under pressure from a pinpoint Johnny Sexton garryowen that resulted in the crucial opening try from the razor-sharp Garry Ringrose, Ireland were on their way to a famous win.
The difference between Ireland and everyone else in this championship has been their ability to convert opportunity and pressure into points. Contrast that with England. In a sustained period of dominance leading into the half-time break, they had Ireland pinned down within metres of their own line.
Two penalties conceded on the bounce made it clear that one more indiscretion would be accompanied with a yellow card. That is exactly what transpired when Peter O’Mahony took one for the team, collapsing a rampaging English maul that looked certain to result in a try. Yet there was still no sign of panic within Irish ranks when the penalty conceded by O’Mahony offered another opening for England’s improving maul.
What followed summed up the difference in application between the two teams.
Having opted for the simple option to win the ball through the towering presence of Maro Itoje at the front for the previous three lineouts, England captain Dylan Hartley choose to seek out Chris Robshaw, operating at the tail.
A slight overthrow by Hartley was compounded by a missed lift on Robshaw by James Haskell. Poor decision making compounded by poor execution in the scoring zone. Ireland don’t make that kind of mistake.
England did eventually manage to secure a try through Elliot Daly in the 32nd minute while O’Mahony was in the bin but that period only served to highlight the lack of clear thinking within the England ranks.
The fact that Ireland absorbed that blow — and the loss of Sexton to a head injury assessment in the minutes that followed — and scored a vital try for the third game in a row when the clock was in added time before the break, shows just how ruthless this Irish team is.
Once again the chief executioner was Stockdale who registered his 11th try in only his ninth cap. The fact that Carbery was instrumental in the set up to that pivotal score and tacked on a superb conversion that extended Ireland’s lead to 16 points at the break propelled this remarkable side into what ultimately proved an unassailable position.
Not that England were prepared to go quietly. To their credit they did mount a serious fightback — they outscored Ireland 10-3 in the second half — that would have been rewarded against lesser opposition. The heroic defensive shift put in by Ireland after the break highlighted conclusively the unbreakable character of the side.
A crucial tap tackle by Keith Earls on Daly three minutes into the second half was crucial as England finally put some badly needed continuity together.
The superiority in terms of possession and territory that Ireland enjoyed in the opening half — 62% and 58% respectively — was turned decisively in England’s favour with 66% possession and a whopping 71% territory over the second 40 minutes. Brilliant in the opening period with the ball, Ireland were equally effective under siege without it.
The big difference between the sides was England’s inability to translate that period of dominance on the scoreboard. Ireland just didn’t allow it to happen. For a team ridiculously labelled boring in some quarters, Ireland scored 20 tries in the tournament, six more than England in second place.
To this point the rugby world had been salivating over the showdown between New Zealand and England at Twickenham next November to judge the gap between the top two sides in the game. After this championship that focus now switches to Dublin when the All Blacks will be back in town and eager to assess matters 11 months out from the World Cup.
Brilliant and all as capturing this Grand Slam has been, Schmidt won’t allow Ireland rest on their laurels. That is what marks him and this hugely exciting squad apart. There is more to come.
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