To paraphrase Sean Bean in Lord of the Rings – and an antique meme – one does not simply walk into Twickenham, batter England for 60/65 minutes and walk off with a third ever Grand Slam. The only problem with that is, no one seemed to tell this Irish side.
Plenty will be said about Eddie Jones’ England over the next few days but one truth should not be forgotten; that they are a serious rugby side, even on their current poor run. That Ireland won this game with a bit to spare and a scoreboard that ever so slightly flattered England at the final whistle shouldn’t be a reflection on the host’s troubles – which are largely inflated due to circumstance anyway. It should instead illustrate the level that Ireland are operating at in this Championship.
Ireland won a Slam in Twickenham without any need for panic, without any need for last-minute dramatics, without any need for anyone to hide behind the couch. In fact, the last 10 minutes of this game were almost eerily calm. Where was the “hard way”? Winning a Grand Slam isn’t supposed to be this… smooth. Is it?
It is when your forwards conclusively win almost every contest, stymy England’s lineout possession and dominate the collisions all over the pitch. This was a result based on good old-fashioned blunt force trauma on both sides of the ball. Early on, Ireland would have expected England to set about making statements of intent when they were on the ball but in the early exchanges, it was Ireland who were doing most of the talking.
That kind of dominant action sets the tone for the afternoon, and that certainly seemed to be the case for Ireland here. The clinical brutality dispensed to an English pack that was stuffed full of Lions quality from the outset and throughout was remarkable. Ireland were powerful in the narrow channels through the likes of Stander, Healy and O’Mahony, and dynamic in that key middle channel through Furlong, Leavy, Henderson and Ryan. Ireland racked up 10+ phases on multiple occasions and mixed fringe carries, one out carries and hinging middle channel carries to work the English forwards in specific offensive sets – like a kind of interval training with immense physical consequences. Ireland had less possession overall – 46% – but used what ball they had much, much better.
Leonardo DaVinci famously said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” and that holds true for Ireland’s attacking work at the moment. Our phase play is direct, organised and controlled. Our set-piece work is mechanical, targeted and sophisticated. Just like Stander’s try, which I’ve looked at in detail here.
That offensive work was backed up by rock-solid defensive organisation, aggression and controlled brutality.
Ireland were rock-solid on the defensive side of the ball all afternoon and stood firm against real English pressure when it counted; the first 10 minutes of the second half in particular. That’s where we got to see the real character of this team. If the first half was an exercise in score building, the second half was one based on game-winning defensive sets.
England came out firing but Ireland repelled them again and again (and again) to keep that 16 point lead intact for long enough to make any potential comeback a miraculous one. There was just no give in them.
After 10 minutes of defensive work deep in our 22, the siege was finally lifted by a scrum penalty that the Irish coaching crew celebrated like a try.
For good reason.
Healy, Henderson and O’Mahony drove through on Sinckler and that scrum pressure helped Ireland down the pitch and knock a little bit of confidence out of England.
It felt like a big moment. It was. England threw the kitchen sink at Ireland in that opening 10 minutes of the second half and a score there would have been a massive psychological blow for them. Instead, Ireland withstood them and struck a blow of our own. The game swung on winning big moments and accumulating them.
When you think about it, that’s what Ireland have been doing over the course of this Six Nations and November. We’ve been winning big moments, making big plays, capitalising on them and denying them to the opposition.
Ireland went into this game as favourites and backed it up on the pitch for 80 minutes with a minimum of fuss. Schmidt’s men did what they needed to do when they needed to do it, and they endured all that England could throw at them with physicality, intelligence and guts.
When you consider that this Slam was won on an “off year”, with two away trips to Paris and London, the scale of the victory becomes even more clear. This Grand Slam showcased everything you could possibly want to see from a side with big ambitions. They dug out a win they had no right to earn in Paris, slapped Italy around the place, dispatched two worthy Celtic challengers without too much fuss and then sealed the deal with a ruthless display in London.
We shouldn’t forget that this achievement was built on the shoulders of the giants who came before them. The giants of Cardiff in 2009. The young lads that played in this win saw what was possible from the likes of O’Connell, Stringer, O’Callaghan, O’Gara, O’Driscoll, O’Kelly, Hickie, D’Arcy, Hayes, Horan, Wallace, Flannery and then Ferris, Best, Kearney and numerous others. Those men helped to lift Ireland from what we were in the 90s and changed what we thought was possible for Irish rugby.
They set us on the path that lead to here.
This is not normal. This is extraordinary. We had the talent to deliver, we had the inherent quality and then the bottle to put it all together over five games. The most important thing to remember is that this isn’t the end of a story – it’s just the opening chapter for this young team.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance.
Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy, Keiran Marmion, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour
It’s a good day when most of your bench can come on and keep the momentum of a performance like this going. All of these lads had a valuable impact and, importantly, kept the defensive pressure up. Special mention has to go to Jordan Larmour, who played a good 25 minutes at outside centre when he hadn’t trained there ahead of the game.
Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Dan Leavy, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale, Bundee Aki, Gary Ringrose, Keith Earls, Rob Kearney
Do you want to play for Ireland? This is your standard. You’ll no doubt read all kinds of thought pieces on all kinds of media over the next few months about how this guy or that guy isn’t getting a fair shake in the Irish side but you need to assess those claims with this question – “would they improve on the guy who played in a green shirt at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day?”
Some people’s claim might be better than others but if you look through Ireland’s starting XV in this game, you’ll see the bar for national consideration going forward.
This was the best I’ve seen Ireland play since Chicago. Sure, this version of England aren’t the All Blacks, or even close to it. That isn’t to say that England were poor – I think this was the best they’ve played all season – but Ireland just looked like they always had another level to go to in this game if the circumstances demanded it. Twickenham is up there with anywhere in New Zealand as “toughest place to go” in world rugby if you need a result. To win a Grand Slam there you need your big players making big plays again and again. Ireland had that in spades, and then some.
Cian Healy, Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson were in the trenches, making tackles, hitting rucks, dominating the set-piece exchanges and involving themselves in the backstage machinations of this win. They set the physical baseline for a historic performance. Watch all the big moments of this game in attack and defence and you’ll see these guys nearby which is the mark of elite, essential performers.
Bundee Aki, Rob Kearney and Gary Ringrose were the definitions of good decision making on a day that couldn’t afford any slips or errors in midfield and behind. Kearney made a mockery of the consistent claims that he’s past it at test level (he’ll only be 32 in April) with a dominant fullback display that showed class under the high ball and strong direct running on kick returns.
Aki and Ringrose showed up extremely well against an all Lion centre pairing and had a plethora of crucial moments on either side of the ball. I’m particularly happy for Bundee Aki, given the sly, personalised media campaign he was subjected to back in November. Seeing him putting away CJ Stander (!) for the try of the tournament to date had me punching the air that little bit harder.
Jacob Stockdale took his record try with the kind of pace, power and aplomb that has defined his international career to date. He’s this good now at 21 years of age. His potential is scary.
Conor Murray was, as usual, the best scrumhalf on the pitch. Those terms are almost a limiting for him now, such is the regularity with which that descriptor of “best scrumhalf on the pitch” can be applied to him. He didn’t put a foot wrong all day, kicked superbly, made elite decisions and kicked a tricky penalty for good measure. He’s the best in the world at what he does right now.
Johnny Sexton had the kind of game that showcased his mental grit. He’s still not fully “right” with his ongoing injury issues of this tournament and that showed in his goal kicking. But with that said, it’s a testament to the scale of his influence that he can still be the dominant 10 on the pitch and a massively influential part of this win, both on the day and over the last five games.
I’m beyond delighted for Keith Earls. Seeing him walking around Twickenham with his two daughters and a Six Nations medal around his neck was something that I won’t ever forget. In professional sport, “deserve” has nothing to do with anything. You get what you earn, and few men have earned that reward like Keith Earls. He was the 24th man in 2009, injured in 2014/2015 and this day, finally, saw him get his due. He was outstanding here again, dangerous in possession, intelligent in defence and managed to collect another iconic moment to go with The Catch in Paris.
You know who the man is. It’s always Keith Earls.
Tadhg Furlong was so good, you could play the highlights of his performance at halftime in any other game this weekend and he’d win the man of the match there too. The things he can do defy belief at times. His pass for Aki in the build-up to Stander’s try was millimetre perfect. He made that move work because, frankly, who expects a tighthead prop to make that pass? He was dominant in possession, a defensive brick wall and scrummaged incredibly well. As per usual. A performance for the ages from a guy who’s, in theory, years away from his peak as a tighthead.
James Ryan, along with Iain Henderson, had a dominant game in the second row. He carried a lot of ball that didn’t always produce a big bust, but that always hurt the opposition. You can see him improving with every game he plays at this level and looked comfortably at home on the big stage against two Test Lions. Superb.
How about Dan Leavy? What a game this guy had. It’s actually astonishing how good this lad has been, not just over the last few weeks, but since November. This was Ireland’s supposed third choice openside and he plays like this? He carried the ball with endless venom in the middle channel, broke tackles, ran elite openside support lines and dominated whoever was unlucky enough to run into his sights. His work here was such that it took me until 10 minutes from the end to remember that Sean O’Brien was at home on his couch. That’s the level that Leavy is performing at.
Watching CJ Stander score a try like he did here is something I could do over and over. Now you can, too.
That try was the mark of a man that could not and would not be stopped. CJ had another excellent, excellent day for Ireland. He was superb in defence, relentlessly physical in contact and made the incredibly difficult and punishing look like something anyone could do but – believe me – they can’t. There’s barely a highlight of this game that doesn’t have CJ making hits, rattling into rucks or carrying the dirtiest ball in the nastiest areas for the hardest yards.
What a gem of a player, character and man.
When the DVD of this Six Nations comes out, be sure to watch this game back in detail. There’s magic to be appreciated. This is the bar for what Ireland have achieved and it’s a glimpse of how good we can be going forward.
Fifteen Awed Paulies for fifteen Grand Slam heroes? You know it.