The first half of the mission was accomplished at Cheltenham. Ireland 17 England 11. In rugby terms that’s not a rout. In racing terms it is. On to Twickenham for the second part of the job. On St Patrick’s Day and after the week that was in it — Gordon Elliott and WP Mullins and the triumphant finale of The Young Offenders — defeat is, after all, unthinkable.
On commentary for TV3 Dave McIntyre unwraps a couple of alliterative phrases he baked the night befor.
Ireland are in pursuit of “the mythical, mystical Grand Slam”.
England are “beaten down and beleaguered”.
Neat work, and by the sixth minute the hosts are even more beleaguered.
Rob Kearney is caught late by Owen Farrell when clearing his lines. There’s a free – sorry, penalty - from where the ball has landed, Ireland surge forward and Jonny Sexton lets rip with an old-school up and under. “Great hang time on the ball,” Alan Quinlan swoons.
Anthony Watson needn’t be applying for a job with his local bomb disposal unit anytime soon; he makes a mess of dismantling the identifiable flying object, is instantly swallowed up and moments later Garry Ringrose is over for the opening try.
Ireland remain on the front foot. On what is not a day for kickers due to the swirling wind Sexton misses a penalty, but the ball is recycled and CJ Stander touches down at the butt of the upright. The visitors lead 14-0. I am regretting not doing a little recycling of my own and parlaying some of my Cheltenham winnings on them at even-money.
They do concede a try when, in the absence of the sin-binned Peter O’Mahony, Farrell puts Elliot Daly in. The response is measured. Ireland keep things tight, limit the damage and in due course O’Mahony — “a real mongrel in the breakdown,” in Quinlan’s phrase — is back.
Nearly everything about the men in green this season has been calm and controlled and it’s no surprise to see them in possession and taking the heat out of things as the clock hits red. Then suddenly, and not for the first time approaching the interval lately, they reach for the six-shooter. In injury time they choose to go wide. Who’s the only one they can reach out on the left? Yes, the son of a preacher man.
Jacob Stockdale performs a series of minor miracles. He sees off the attentions of two Englishmen who are pulling and dragging at him; he somehow contrives not to knock on; and, even more remarkably, he manages to corral the ball and ground it just as he’s running out of road. He may not be quite “festooned with Saxons”, a la Gerry McLoughlin at the same venue in 1982, but as with McLoughlin it is a score that will be shown forever and a day. A graphic indicates it to be Stockdale’s seventh try of the tournament, a feat not achieved since 1913. Even if life for a winger was harder then — fewer matches, inferior equipment, a slower game — it is a signal achievement nonetheless.
Ireland go in 21-5 up. The scum – ahem, I mean the cream – has risen to the top. The TV3 panellists say all the right things; George Hook not being one of them, they say nothing remotely striking. That, you suspect, is the reason they’ve been assembled.
On the restart England huff and puff for 15 minutes.
Ireland resist with some comfort.
At pitchside Peter Stringer praises their “very impressive” discipline. “It’s these little moments, these little battles that you win. You can see the English heads dropping.”
Ireland concede a rare penalty for what Alan describes as a “tractor and trailer” offence. I’ve absolutely no idea what this particular activity entails and I’m not sure I want to. But hey, this is 2018 and consenting adults can do what they like.
On the hour Conor Murray lands the first score of the second half to put the visitors 24-5 ahead. The only possible danger in white now is from a potential deluge of snow that will result in the match being abandoned.
England don’t so much prod and poke as batter away. Watching them is not unlike watching Martin O’Neill’s lads try their hand with an oval ball. Lumpen, one-dimensional, craftless stodge. It is not exactly a trial for Rory Best. How Eddie Jones’s side end the proceedings with three tries will constitute the mystery of the day. That Farrell blazes the conversion wide at the near post after they cross the line redundantly in injury time sums up their afternoon.
They may lack the star quality of the team of 2009, with star figures like Paulie and BOD and Rog and, er, Podge, but 2018’s iteration do their business cleanly and clinically. It is a rare and enviable quality, one underlined when Joe Schmidt, interviewed afterwards by Sinead Kissane, talks about “a bit of analysis in the next two weeks, giving a few individuals a bit of feedback”. There’s perspective.
17-11, 24-15. What a week. Hail Glorious Saints Gordon, Willie and Joe.