Ireland’s ‘special’ win provides CJ Stander with a fitting finale

Farrell praises ‘magnificent’ team that ‘got the emotion right’ for big clash with rivals

Irish Rugby captain Johnny Sexton was in upbeat mood after Ireland's 32-18 win over England. Video: VOTN

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If there was an ideal time for Ireland to produce their best performance of the tournament, then no better moment than against England at home and on the final day.

Whether or not there is a summer tour of sorts, which seems unlikely, the squad will retain positive memories of this performance all the way through to the November window.

Reaffirming that progress is being made with some hardcore evidence, in all likelihood ensuring a top-half finish and sending CJ Stander off into the South African sunset on a totally fitting finale, added to the feel-good factor.

Much rubbish has been written and said about Stander’s reasons for retiring and the timing of his announcement, not least to his Irish team-mates. But by choosing to inform them face to face before his last game had, apparently, plenty of lips quivering at last Monday’s squad meeting.

The emotional energy was pitched perfectly, and was married with a well-prepared, well-coached and well-executed game plan. The net effect was Ireland’s best display and result since the halcyon days of 2018, and accordingly yielded a first win over England since that St Patrick’s Day Grand Slam coronation in Twickenham four years ago.

Rivalry

“It’s pretty important to everyone in Ireland, the rivalry is there for everyone to see and obviously they have had the hold on us for the last few games that we’ve played against them,” said Andy Farrell, as measured after this game as he had been after the previous four.

“It was a big one, you know? We said to the lads before the game, they have been magnificent leading each other during the week, as well regarding getting the right emotion and making sure that we didn’t go too far. But there is some games that mean a lot to people individually and there is some games that mean a lot to the team.

“So this was a special game for the team because of what it meant to so many people. Not just the Lions, people coming back from injury, people who hadn’t played for quite some time, people just starting out in the international game.

“Then obviously on top of that you have got the CJ piece so we are delighted we are able to put a collective piece together that wasn’t too high on emotion and was pretty good all around.”

It was indeed another superb Saturday but, thanks to the French laissez-faire attitude to life in a bio-secure bubble, not quite the planned Super Saturday finale.

Instead, the title will be decided next Friday in Paris when France host Scotland in their rearranged game. Les Bleus need a bonus-point win by 21 points or more to wrest the title from the Welsh, after they wrested a Grand Slam from Wayne Pivac’s side in the last play of Saturday night’s dramatic 32-30 win in the Stade de France.

England’s Maro Itoje confronts Peter O’Mahony and Cian Healy during Ireland’s win at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Niall Carson/Pool/Getty Images
England’s Maro Itoje confronts Peter O’Mahony and Cian Healy during Ireland’s win at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Niall Carson/Pool/Getty Images

There is a scenario whereby Ireland could be denied a top-half finish, namely if Scotland beat France by more than five points and the French picked up a bonus point. But a French win of any kind will ensure Ireland of third place.

As for England, they are consigned to a fifth-place finish for the second time under Eddie Jones’s watch, after losing to their three Celtic rivals in the same campaign for the first time since 1976.

In any case, after this finale, the what-might-have-beens will be conducted in a more positive light.

“I suppose there are always ifs, buts and maybes. Red cards, yellow cards, decisions, injuries and all those bits,” said Farrell.

“But we make no excuses, it’s the game that we play. Some go your way, some don’t go your way. The first game, it is always nice to get off to a rolling start and Wales took advantage of that.”

That is the abiding lesson to be reaffirmed from Ireland’s 2021 Six Nations.

“Of course, it’s about starting like that the next time isn’t it? Sometimes it’s not right to build into a competition like the Six Nations, because before you know it it’s too late.

Punishment

“Again, sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t at the start. But, we’ll take the learnings from this. It’s a great reference point, isn’t it, from where we’ve left off?”

It remains to be seen what punishment awaits Bundee Aki for his sending off after his high hit on Billy Vunipola, although these disciplinary committees invariably side with the officials.

It also remains to be seen if Ellis Genge will be cited for pushing his elbow into Johnny Sexton’s head on the ground in the 77th minute before Conor Murray was binned for offside.

Somehow that was missed by Romain Poite, if not Alan Quinlan on commentary, and not referred by Mathieu Raynal despite Sexton’s entreaties. Poite has proven himself a less than razor sharp TMO, a role which seems to almost disinterest him.

In any event, Aki seems sure to miss Connacht’s European Challenge Cup last-16 tie away to a rejuvenated Harlequins. But beyond next week’s Guinness Pro14 final, which has been shoehorned into the season and the ensuing two rounds of Europe, how the rest of the season pans out is anyone’s guess.

However, if there is to be a Lions tour or Test series of some description, then some Irish players did their chances no harm here in front of the watching Warren Gatland.

Not alone was this not the pumping that some had anticipated but as history has shown, nothing boosts a Celtic nation’s Lions hopes quite like giving England a good beating.

“There is clearly obvious ones there isn’t there, man of the match performances week in, week out, there has been outstanding performances,” said Farrell, clearly in reference to Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw.

“Some of our senior players that people have written off from time to time over the years, the way they have stood up for me and made the dressingroom feel like they should feel and that is why you get a performance like that.

“Johnny has led it unbelievably well,” added Farrell of his captain Sexton, again outstanding on Saturday.

Taking note

“Conor coming back in, being himself, gives confidence, people like Peter O’Mahony coming back into the room, making the dressingroom feel right and proper to win big games and Bundee Aki doing actually the same,” said the Irish coach, while also noting how more young players like Ryan Baird and Craig Casey had been blooded.

“I have no doubt that there are some lads that are definitely on the plane and Warren 100 per cent will be definitely sitting up and taking note of a few performances.

“People like Will Connors who didn’t get to play today, Josh [van der Flier] has come in and played unbelievably well again today, Jack Conan’s not played in international rugby for some time so it has been all over the place for us really regarding personnel but it has all come together and we are grateful for that.”

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