O’Mahony’s bit of ‘mongrel’ delays Itoje’s coronation

Joe Schmidt refutes suggestions that late backrow change was tactical

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best speak to the media as they finish the Six Nations championship with a victory over tournament winners England

 

Anyone for mind games?

Ireland made all the changes, at backrow and fullback, that so many people demanded. Of course, highly unexpected injuries intervened – for Rob Kearney and then at the last minute Jamie Heaslip – but it just shows how bad fortune can so often prove the catalyst for something special.

Keep the faith.

A conspiracy theory abounded late into the night that this was Ireland coach Joe Schmidt finally catching England counterpart Eddie Jones unawares.

“Heaslip is more top of the ground while O’Mahony is made for those conditions,” said Jones. “Sometimes you have that bit of luck in your warm-up,” he added with that irascible grin.

It was already a bizarre day before the delayed kick-off – due to the 100 minute duel in Paris.

“When they ran on the field we got a message,” said Jones of the late Irish change.”

Any suspicions that it was a tactic?

“I don’t really care, mate. We got to play against the 15 on the field. If they want to do that, that’s fair enough.

“Maybe a leprechaun tackled him in the warm-up, I don’t know.”

CJ Stander’s shift to number eight – after Heaslip of all people pulled up lame in the warm-up – opened the door for O’Mahony to remind everyone of his ferociousness, but any suggestion that the seemingly invincible Naas man (who suffered a high hamstring injury) was a ploy got dismissed by Schmidt.

“Couldn’t be a more flawed theory,” Schmidt said. “Bit of a slight on us, really. It’s not something we do. It was disruptive more than anything to us.”

O’Mahony strode onto the field to create unbridled havoc. And the other six, Maro Itoje, would have to wait for the “greatness” Jones said would be bestowed on him on this day, in this place.

All these Englishmen would have to wait another day for legendary status.

Wonderfully, O’Mahony lacks fear and good sense in the heat of battle.

Early on the Munster captain picked a fight with Billy Vunipola. The monstrous Tongan number eight was joined in the grappling by his Harrow boarding school-mate, Itoje.

Super Maro they call him. Maybe some day, but not yet. O’Mahony softened his cough. Takes a while to dominate all comers at Test level.

Itoje does, however, seem to have entered the realm of Richie McCaw on two fronts; for industry he is peerless – with a freakish 15 head-on tackles – and for almost inciting a riot without even the hint of a card from Jerome Garces when hitting Johnny Sexton late.

It’s hard to sin-bin those who appear better than the rest.

But his tagging of Kieran Marmion followed swiftly by the late, and chillingly powerful, smash of Sexton on 18 minutes did draw a minor rebuke. “Be very careful with your timing,” said Garces as Sexton struggled for breath. “You were late there [on Marmion] and there [on Sexton].”

Garces seemed to almost appreciate the 22-year-old’s stunning technique.

Itoje was everywhere for 40 minutes, nowhere for the next 30 and desperately involved in the last 10.

But he needed to be as Ireland emptied their souls on this night.

Rory Best viciously cleared him from the first breakdown but he quickly bounced up to tag Stander – whose family made the journey from the family farm in George, South Africa.

It had begun; what Best would call the “targeting” of Sexton. In Cardiff, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric went after him. Not three minutes had passed when Itoje viciously, but legally, cleared him from a ruck.

On eight minutes Owen Farrell slammed Sexton into the turf.

When Best went off from the 10th to 18th minute for a Head Injury Assessment, Sexton took over the captaincy.

“Are you captain,” Garces wondered.

“Yeah,” he insisted before anyone else could. Garces was trying to get him to stop talking. No chance now. He seemed relieved by the return of “Rory”.

Itoje was immense in the first half but overall he coughed up three penalties to finally show just how steep a learning curve Test match rugby can be.

O’Mahony is the “mongrel” (a Jones word) benchmark now.

“We’ve got a young guy who’s only 22 and is still studying at university,” said Jones. “He was doing an essay this week on the socio-economic status of Ghana or something like that. This Six Nations is the first time he’s called the lineouts as Test level. And again he’ll learn a lot from that.

“Maro has now come through and he’s a guy we can call on to call the lineout.”

Like any natural leader, Itoje called a world of ball onto himself.

The review will show O’Mahony soaring up – lifted by the mighty Tadhg Furlong and Dev Toner – to steal the crucial throw in the 74th minute.

That was the bitter/glorious moment, depending on one’s perspective.

When Itoje, again, smashed Sexton on 48 minutes, Garces turned to an increasingly frustrated Best: “Rory, nothing wrong.”

Swing Low flittered around the ground after Farrell reduced arrears to 10-6. It is drowned out by catcalls before The Fields cranked up. The place was alive. This was a magic Test match to be present for.

Sexton, crazed now, won a turnover by creating a maul in the tackle. And just as Dylan Hartley took his leave, Donnacha Ryan was picked up on ref mic: “Come on now boys. They’ve had their patch. They’ve had their time.”

Sexton made it 13-6 with Iain Henderson driving Itoje and England backwards in the next big collision. Seán O’Brien slowly took a knee so Dan Leavy who Joe said got “a hell of a shock” when promoted to the bench ran in to empty his tank.

Not even the hardest Rugby League boys could cope. Ben Te’o also arrived only to be forced off with concussion.

Then came the seminal moment. England won a penalty off Robbie Henshaw on the ground. Farrell had not missed a kick at goal but he turned to the touchline. They would break Ireland with their maul. Itoje demanded the ball but O’Mahony snatched it away from him.

“Pete’s vertical leap is impressive and ability to get in the air is always an advantage,” added Schmidt.

“We lost Conor Murray and the challenge is for someone else to stand up and fill the void. Peter O’Mahony done that for us tonight.”

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