Six Nations: Five turning points in Ireland’s Grand Slam win
From Sexton’s drop goal to defence against England it was a campaign of highlights
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton kicks the winning drop goal in the opening Six Nations clash with France. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Jonathan Sexton’s drop goal v France
It seems ludicrous to suggest that a Grand Slam can be attributed to one score over 400-minutes and five matches of a Six Nations Championship but Jonathan Sexton’s drop goal in injury time in the opening game at the Stade de France after 41-phases and from 44-metres provided the moment of rugby acuity to embellish the graft, concentration and accuracy of his 14 teammates that set up the opportunity.
Irish captain Rory Best admitted: “I think we knew that we had to target the first game and then go one game at a time after that. You look at the fine margins and after 75 minutes we looked dead and buried in Paris having controlled a game that we should have already won.
“Those are the little moments. It’s reflective of how much we know the effort that went in and how special that kick from Johnny was. We tried to ensure that magic moments like that don’t go unrewarded and reward came this (Saturday) afternoon (in Twickenham) with that win.”
Jacob Stockdale’s intercept try against Wales
Ireland shouldn’t have been in such a parlous position in relation to the outcome of the match. They had dominated for large tranches of the game against Wales, both on the scoreboard and in terms of possession and territory but a couple of defensive lapses kept the visitors in the game and allowed them a shot at what would have seemed an unlikely victory at half-time.
The nervous tension was palpable as Ireland supporters bayed for the final whistle as Wales, trailing by three points, launched one final attack. Replacement outhalf Gareth Anscombe spotted a couple of teammates in the wide channel and launched a long, cut-out pass in their general direction.
Jacob Stockdale read the intention and stepped into the space between the two Welsh players to intercept the pass and his unencumbered run to the Welsh try line was met by an explosion of noise from the stands in the Aviva stadium.
Huw Jones misplaced pass to Stuart Hogg
Ireland faced a Scotland side fresh from victory over England in the fourth round of tournament matches and despite their eventual 28-8 victory there were some acutely uncomfortable moments from an Irish perspective, foremost of which was a gilt edged opportunity that was quite literally thrown away.
Scotland outhalf Finn Russell took a quick throw-in and flung a long pass infield to Sean Maitland, who in turn found centre Huw Jones on the opposite touchline with another missile. He chipped over Keith Earls, re-gathered, eluded Rob Kearney and as Jonathan Sexton closed, just had to find the supporting Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg for a certain try under the posts but instead threw a shocking pass that went to ground.
It wasn’t Ireland’s only escape defensively on the day but given the timing of the incident in the match it was an important plot twist.
Tadhg Furlong’s pass
CJ Stander’s try at Twickenham was a homily to training ground precision, a beautifully executed move, only previously employed once. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt explained: “We played the identical move against England three years ago in Dublin.
“Robbie Henshaw went through and fell over. He got ankle tapped and Billy Vunipola managed to drag him down. They are the only two times we played it. The way they come up defensively we thought it might work again and the way they place their forwards.”
A key component was a beautiful screen pass from the man-of-the-match Ireland tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, whose timing and weight of delivery to Bundee Aki, allowed the centre to race through the line of English defenders and give Stander a scoring pass.
Ireland’s eight minute goal-line defence against England
Ireland led 21-5 at the interval and knew that England’s only hope to try and get back into the match was to score soon after the re-start. Eddie Jones’ side produced arguably the best sustained passages of play that they mustered for the entire game in that window of time, forcing their way into the Irish 22 and then pummelling away at their opponents’ line.
It felt like a watershed moment; if Ireland survived the onslaught, England would run out of ideas. It didn’t quite pan out like that but it was seminal to the end-game. Ireland had a buffer on the scoreboard. Forget the late English try, the outcome had been decided.
Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt summed up that bloody minded resilience. “That eight minutes after half-time sums up this team. Yes, they can put together some really good moments and score tries. We probably totalled more than we’ve ever scored in a Six Nations. They delivered on that side, but that pure resilience, that ability to get back up and get back in the defensive line to protect that try-line in the eight minutes after half time, was exceptional.”