Saturday 16 December 2017

Brent Pope: Cardiff beckons for Schmidt's gladiators

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt

It has almost become natural to think that this Irish team will win every match, such is the expectation success brings. That may be a dangerous omen in a World Cup year, but for the moment we will just savour another fantastic win against the Auld Enemy.

As predicted, this encounter had all the feel of a title decider to it, with the championship's two unbeaten sides trying to decide who would continue on their quest for Triple Crown or Grand Slam glory.

In the end, despite England coming back into the game in the last quarter, Ireland had too much of a cushion to let this one slip.

Ireland now march on to Cardiff with a real chance of taking a Grand Slam title, but they will have to wait on a number of injury concerns before assessing what sort of team will limp out to take on Warren Gatlands men.


Since Martin Johnson's side had their Grand Slam aspirations crushed way back in 2011, England had enjoyed an unchecked run of four wins in succession over Ireland but only one under their talismanic new general, Joe Schmidt.

As the Aviva was pelted with rain and snow just prior to kickoff, Schmidt's masterplan did not change. He would rely on Sexton's boot to pepper the talented but inexperienced English back three, and that's exactly what happened.

Many questions were answered in the first few minutes. Ireland's kicking game was near perfect, and a strong home scrum soon followed, something that Irish scrum coach Greg Feek would be most proud of.

As a result, Ireland took all the early plaudits, scorching to an almost easy six-point lead. England looked decidedly nervous and strangely ill disciplined and were struggling just to get their hands on the ball.

England eventually settled into their game-plan but their big ball-carriers were still looking far too isolated, and as a result Ireland and Sexton kept the home scoreboard ticking over via penalties.

The Irish plan was fairly simple in its execution - kick, kick and then kick again. But for the first half of the match it was working well, simply because Ireland had more aggressive kick chasers and were able, in most instances, to get the ball back.

Ireland lost flanker Sean O'Brien after just 20 minutes, when their most devastating carrier was clearly suffering the effects of a head injury. It would have been wrong for the Tullow man to come back onto the field, given all the recent worry about head injuries.

But once again O'Brien's replacement Tommy O'Donnell was excellent and now has the distinction of never losing a game in an Irish jersey.

How times have changed. Once upon a time, some Irish players never tasted a win in a green jersey.

Ireland continued to deny England any decent ball in the second half by playing more as a team, while England looked more like a unit relying on individual attacks.

It's hard to say how England felt at halftime. They were being dominated in terms of possession and territory but, like France, Ireland were still struggling to put the English away.


At 9-3 ahead it was hardly the reward that Ireland deserved. That would soon change as Ireland continued to pressure England at every turn, and with their tails up Irish scrum-half Connor Murray sent up a kick up over England's line.

Irish centre Robbie Henshaw rose spectacularly in a try-scoring leap that Shane Horgan would have been proud of.

Henshaw's GAA skills were apparent when the big Connacht man stretched over for what turned out to be the game-winning try.

At one stage, Ireland were 16 points ahead, but slowly England were clawing that lead back. However, you always felt that Ireland had too much to let the game slip away.

Opposition teams will always have a purple patch, but England could not put themselves into a position where they were only one score behind.

There was many heroes in green, players like Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy all excelled in what was a hugely physical battle up front, while in the backs Johnny Sexton was fantastic early on, Simon Zebo has his best game in ages and centre Robbie Henshaw proved just what a positive future he has.

It was not a great game in terms of creativity, but that is the modern game, perhaps dominated too much by defence. But all in all it was still an absorbing and physical match.

Another fantastic day out and a record ten Irish wins on the trot . . . if Joe Schmidt puts another notch on his belt his trousers may well fall down.

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