DONAL LENIHAN: Twists and shout: Medley of memories on special Six Nations Saturday

THE Six Nations championship has never witnessed a day like it. 221 points scored, 27 tries, 12 in that breathtaking game in the tournament finale at Twickenham. It was riveting stuff, writes Donal Linehan.

For Ireland to emerge on top of the pile after a captivating seven hours of rugby made this triumph even more memorable and satisfying.

There were remarkable scenes in Murrayfield’s West Stand during the second half of that London epic as thousands of Irish supporters watched England’s effort to wrestle the title from Ireland’s grasp on the big screens. The ebb and flow of raw emotion with every point scored and conceded was accompanied with gasps and groans audible in the heart of Edinburgh. Never before did an Irish crowd support France with such passion and vigour. Allez les Bleus rang out from the stand every time the French threatened the English line.

And to think Philippe Saint-Andre’s side are our chief rivals in Pool D of the World Cup in only six months’ time. All hostilities were suspended, however, as his side kept Chris Robshaw’s men at bay in those pulsating closing exchanges as England chased the converted try that would have wrenched the title from Ireland’s grasp.

All that after England were handed a seemingly impossible margin of victory to chase. Put yourself in Stuart Lancaster’s shoes when he had to let his England players know before they took the field that they would have to win by a margin of 26 points in order to avoid being Six Nations bridesmaids for the fourth-season-in-a-row.

Against France of all people. That they came within a whisker of achieving that made their performance even more astonishing and Ireland’s success a little bit sweeter.

After all the moaning and groaning about the quality of rugby throughout this year’s tournament, when it was put up to Wales, Ireland and England to go out and play they obliged in style. Credit too to France for making it a contest. For Scotland and Italy, the realisation that they have fallen so far behind their Six Nations brethren must be hard to swallow on such a spellbinding day for northern hemisphere rugby.

Ireland, with just four tries in the tournament before Saturday, matched that total against the hapless Scots with an exhilarating display. The Irish management deserve massive credit for not only picking the players up from their bootlaces after the disappointment of Cardiff, but for giving them a structure and a game plan to break the Scottish resistance.

Joe Schmidt revealed that he had never seen the players as crestfallen and low in training as they were in last Tuesday’s session but slowly the Welsh game was consigned to history as his charges began to realise the opportunity was still there to write some history of their own. They certainly achieved that. What a difference a week makes.

When Ireland started their warm up on Saturday, Wales only led Italy by a point. By the time they finished, the Welsh had set an incredibly challenging target after their 61-20 win. Apparently Schmidt just pulled everybody into a huddle and said ”Boys we need to win by 21 points today”. They went nine better than that.

From the kick-off Ireland opted to go wide with a quality of handling and passing that we hadn’t seen from the side for quite some time. With the Scottish back three dropping off in the back field to cover the expected aerial bombardment, Ireland called their bluff.

Despite lying deep in their own 22, Ireland had the confidence to move the ball out to the five metre channels where there was acres of space available. Robbie Henshaw and Luke Fitzgerald had never played together before but they combined with such force and energy in that opening period that Scotland were visibly rattled and caught on the hop by Ireland’s approach.

Chasing points, it helps enormously when you score a try within minutes of the start. That inspirational captain Paul O’Connell was the one to register that score was also significant. The Irish players would have felt they had let the great man down on the occasion of his 100th cap last week. The minute he dotted down for that opening score, he immediately sprung to his feet and sprinted back to the halfway line.

The message was clear. ‘Follow me’.

How fitting too that a man who had suffered so much over the last year should wind back the clock and deliver his most complete performance since those shoulder re-constructions stalled his career. Not surprisingly it has taken Sean O’Brien time to find his feet when thrown in at the deep end at international level with little or no game time for months on end.

To be forced out of his comeback game with a hamstring twinge just minutes before the game in Rome would only have led to further anguish. Outplayed by Sam Warburton in Wales last week, the whispers were beginning to start. Stop whispering — O’Brien is back to his explosive best. He was phenomenal on Saturday, even without scoring those two crucial tries.

Alongside him Peter O’Mahony was equally influential and had an incredible game in terms of ball carrying, fielding and line-out work while Jamie Heaslip was also superb with his penchant for chasing lost causes denying Stuart Hogg a certain try. In the end, his intervention proved the difference between winning and losing the championship.

That type of unselfish work rate deserves to be rewarded and Ireland’s back row set the foundation for this mesmerising win. Behind them Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton pulled the strings and varied the game to an astonishing level. Coming into this contest, I highlighted Ireland’s game management as the key element, especially when tasked with chasing such a huge points differential.

Choosing to go wide in the opening quarter, they set the ground rules and put the process in motion with a ten point lead at half time. After the break they dominated the third quarter with a clever mix of pick and drives in order to suck in more Scottish forwards to the breakdown. Once they achieved that, Sexton launched Henshaw and the excellent Jared Payne up the middle.

Then in the final quarter with a healthy lead in the bag, Sexton and Murray probed the corners, driving Scotland back into their 22. It was a masterclass in tactical appreciation.

The next time Ireland take the field in a competitive game will be the 2015 World Cup so it was vital to convince themselves that they could deliver tries when the pressure was greatest.

The quality of passing was greatly improved and Scotland’s frailties in defence were ruthlessly exposed.

As for the argument to start all three games simultaneously on the final day of tournament action, Super Saturday consigned that theory to the bin for good. The fact that the destiny of the championship was still in the balance in the very last play — an attacking England line out — told you all you needed to know.

The only tweak this great tournament needs is three points for a win and the introduction of a bonus point system. If the weekend proved anything, it is that chasing specific targets brings out the best in all teams.


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