Some moments transcend sport and enter “where were you when…” territory. So where were you when Johnny Sexton kicked a 42-metre drop goal after 41 phases of possession with the clock gone red? I’ll tell you where I was; hopping around a bar in West Cork with everyone else in a kind of delirious ecstasy. This is the type of feeling that only sport can provide.
We can talk about Ireland’s poor game management in a wet and slippy Stade de France – and I will. But, in a way, it doesn’t matter what we talk about if it’s not focused on what happened from the 77th minute on in this game.
That 82nd-minute strike from the Champs Elysees speaks so loudly, so dramatically that it almost drowns out everything else.
That sequence of 41 carries that featured stellar carries from Ian Henderson, CJ Stander, Dan Leavy, John Ryan, Bundee Aki and the rest almost defied belief.
How many times did you think it was all over during those phases? When Bundee Aki ran a wide midfield line into a gang of French defenders? When the French collapsed on top of another ruck for what seemed like 30 seconds? When Johnny Sexton dinged a crossfield kick that Keith Earls had to leap nearly six feet in the air to take before pirouetting away to earn five more metres? When Conor Murray loaded a pass to Johnny Sexton just in front of the halfway line? When Sexton had to readjust onto his right side before driving the ball down the throat of the posts?
If you’d scripted that ending it’d be filed under science fiction.
I won’t try to fool you into thinking that this game won’t get distilled down to Sexton’s jaw-dropping testicular fortitude when this game fades into memory. After all, do you remember anything about the Northampton game outside of O’Gara’s last-gasp drop goal after 100,000 phases? Me neither.
Sexton’s legendary, career highlight moment won’t really tell the story of the game, just like O’Gara’s didn’t of that Northampton game, but that’s how it goes with “where were you when…” moments. Nobody remembers where they were or what they were doing when Ireland let the game slip away from them in the third and fourth quarter and maybe that’s for the best.
The uncomfortable thing in the background of all of this is that you don’t produce a moment like we saw here without a few things going badly wrong in the build-up.
From 65 minutes on, you could describe most of what happened as being “badly wrong”. Well, up until the drop goal we’ll probably still be watching on a loop in 10 years time. I mean, it was great, don’t get me wrong, but my inner curmudgeon is shrieking “WE SHOULDN’T HAVE NEEDED IT!”
Ireland were slowly strangling France, punishing them in the tackle, forcing them to gas and setting them up for a killer punch that never came.
We should have been over the hill and out of sight in the last quarter, not standing under our own posts with three minutes left planning a miracle.
For a while in the third quarter, Ireland had France right where they would have wanted them. France were starting to soak tackles, drop off the pace and narrow in defence but we just couldn’t get the killer blow that would have broken their resistance. I think we actually played a little too much ball.
I wrote pre-game on how Ireland like to start their wider plays with a close in fringe-punch to generate quick ball but we just couldn’t manage it as the game wore on. Instead of kicking the ball to touch like we probably should have done in the third/fourth quarter, I felt we stayed looking for the killer running option a little too much.
Without quick ball, it’s almost impossible to generate linebreaks in wet conditions. When you’re struggling to get quick ball, for whatever reason, you leave yourself exposed for a sucker punch. That would come later.
When Furlong lost the ball in contact after a series of heavy phases and Sexton dragged a penalty wide, Ireland gave France two big momentum swings that jolted them back into the game.
I have to be fair here – a lot of Ireland’s narrowing in the attack was down to the worsening weather conditions and the breakdown interpretation of Nigel Owens. France tackled in clusters and were allowed all the time in the world to stall Ireland’s ruck ball. We were happy to let them at it inside the first 50 minutes – let them make tackles, give away the odd penalty and burn numbers at the breakdown – but when it came time to up the tempo we just didn’t make it happen.
Instead of landing the knockout blow that we’d been prepping France for all game, they caught us with the classic forgotten arm – the punch we didn’t see coming. After a big Kearney clearance, France went quickly and caught Ireland napping in transition. We just switched off. When the ball went beyond Murray’s chase, Ireland were in serious danger regardless of what you think Kearney or Stockdale should have done better. That’s the cruelty of being caught in transition and it looked like it had let Thomas in for the unlikeliest of French winners in the last 10 minutes.
When Belleau stood over a scrum penalty in the 76th minute, it looked like it was all over. Ireland were on the ropes but somehow managed to land the miracle shot needed to finish this fight with the clock gone red.
In this tournament, a win is a win (is a win). It could and should have been much handier than it ended up being but on we go. As much as it shouldn’t have been needed, that drop goal was a special moment to witness. Moments like that don’t come along very often in sport (or in life) so try to remember the joy you felt in the aftermath of that kick because it’s something to be cherished.
I thought they’d blown it and gone too soon but that’s the magic of sport; it changes what you think is possible. The discipline, desire, technique and stones involved from every Irish player in the build-up to that incredible finish has to be admired above all else.
Most importantly of all, the slam is still, miraculously, incredibly, on.
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. I didn’t rate Josh Van Der Flier due to his injury or Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery, due to them being unused substitutes.
Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, John Ryan, Devin Toner, Fergus McFadden.
Take into account that everyone involved in that last five minutes of carnage deserves Awed Paulies for their poise, bottle and technical ability to make that result happen.
I thought the front row of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong worked incredibly hard without ever producing an outstanding moment. I did get the feeling watching the game back that Ireland didn’t get reward from the scrum that they might have with a different referee but all six front row forwards in the squad did well here for the most part.
Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw had decent games but struggled for space in the claustrophobic midfield exchanges. They were rock solid in defence when called upon and looked dangerous on strike plays but I think there’ll be a bit of experimentation at 12/13 before I’d be comfortable calling this our #1 combination. Henshaw’s distribution from #13 needs a bit of work, but he could have been limited by the slow ball and the wet conditions.
Rob Kearney and Jacob Stockdale had solid games. Some seem determined to jump on anything Kearney does as proof he’s “past it” but unfortunately for them, there’s scant evidence of that on this performance. He got passed by Thomas for the try but he had a choice of staying on his line or stepping out to let the initial ball carrier through – a no-win situation once the kick-chase line didn’t run up in unison.
Stockdale was caught with a similar problem once Thomas advanced – he could either stand his ground and try to match Thomas’ finishing angle or gamble early and get risk getting stepped clean. I’d be reluctant to scourge either of those men for what was a collective error.
Both were solid in challenging conditions.
James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Dan Leavy, Conor Murray, Keith Earls
It’s a testament to James Ryan that at 21 years of age and with less than 10 professional starts to his name he managed to produce this physical, bruising display in the engine room of the Irish pack. He kept showing up for work until he could work no more. He’s the real deal.
Iain Henderson had a good game, that was highlighted by a breakdown penalty, hard work on both sides of the ball and his excellent role in the end game.
Peter O’Mahony had a classic dirty work outing here. He was Ireland’s chief lineout target and took on a lot of the dirty work that allowed Henderson and Ryan to rack up 29 carries between them. He’s the archetypical “half-lock”, especially when you’ve got two ball-carrying second rows like we did in this game. He had multiple excellent interventions in the five minutes of carnage that led to Sexton’s drop goal. Great stuff.
Dan Leavy came on and nailed himself on to start at 7 next week. He was busy, heavy in the carry and tackle and did what he almost always does – make himself noticed.
CJ Stander spent the majority of this game running headlong into two French forwards in the tight channels because someone had to do it. If you know the way Ireland like to set up their more expansive sequences, you’ll know that it often starts with a good punch in a narrow channel – that was Stander’s role here without O’Brien to share the heavy carrying load.
His work in the last passage of play after the 77 minutes he had put in up to that point was almost superhuman. What a player.
If I ask you “who’s the man?”, you’ll know instinctively that the answer is Keith Earls. He’s been criticised in some parts for the knock-on late in the game but I find it hard to criticise him for that given that he didn’t actually knock it on. His footspeed, acceleration and bottle in the last play of the game were superb – you can see him looking for the ball on the crossfield kick early in the last five minutes and when he got it, he made it count.
Look at that. LOOK AT THAT. Who’s the man?
Conor Murray had another one of those games that nudge him closer to undisputed “best scrumhalf in the game” territory. His greatest ability seems to be constantly making the correct decision when he’s presented with a choice and that is no ordinary skill. He was really good here, again, but he almost always is.
I know the drop goal wasn’t just Sexton alone but his work in the build-up to it was absolutely outstanding beyond rational description.
Sexton’s work up until the 77th minute of this game was two crown territory. I thought he made some iffy decisions when we had France spewing black smoke and if everything that happened, hadn’t happened, a lot of the blame for a defeat would have fallen on his shoulders.
But that’s why the 10 shirt is the hardest one to play in at test level.
We need to claim the 22 drop-out back. He puts it where it needs to be.
We’re running out of gas after 20 phases and we need to kick it wide to Earls – he makes it happen.
Does he blow a pass in the build-up? Yeah. No bother, he just carries and puts it back.
He gets a heavy knock a few phases before the drop goal? No bother. I’m grand. Give me the ball.
He’s 42 metres out, in the rain, with the clock gone red after 41 phases and the ball coming on his wrong side? Just watch.
Amazing. The balls it takes to do that. The all or nothing pressure to land a drop goal from that far out, in that context, must have been crushing. And he still drained it flush over the middle of the crossbar.
That moment will drown out everything else, and almost rightly so. This moment in the aftermath of the kick is what sport is all about to me.
Look at him – look at that amazement on his face. “I did it”. That was the embodiment of every childhood imagining made flesh. You can see him practising that very kick in a pitch on his own as a young lad, hearing the commentary as he drains the kick to win the game for Ireland. In that fleeting moment, the child and the man are reunited on a grand stage. He dreamed it and then he kicked it. In doing so, he created a moment that will be scorched into the minds of all who saw it live. This is the Bull crying. This is Simon Geoghan in the corner. This is Stringer fooling everyone in the Millenium Stadium. This is O’Gara at the death with the Grand Slam in the balance.
This is Johnny Sexton in Paris. This is the stuff of legends and folklore.
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