Denis Hickie told a cool story one time on a podcast about professional rugby being a young sport still. He found himself one day back in the 2000s watching a schools match, idling in the crowd on an afternoon off from Leinster. From memory, it was St Mary's against somebody but the who is not important. The what – or the WTF – is the key takeaway.
It was one of those games where one team comprehensively had the other’s number. Faster, better, stronger, smarter. Every time they defended a ruck, the player either side of the tackler put his hand in the air, a move so familiar to anyone who has watched rugby over the past 15 years as to barely warrant a mention now.
For Hickie though, the image stuck in his head purely for the broader story it told. The Ireland team of which he was a part had only started using that system of defence less than 18 months previously. They hadn’t had a particularly happy settling-in period with it either because it had taken a bit of learning and a lot of drilling to get it right. And yet here was a schoolboy side, kids with classes and acne and lives outside the game, running it like it was second nature.
His point was to do with the speed of evolution in the sport. A defensive system he and his teammates – the best professional players in the country, mind – were straining every sinew to come to terms with in their mid-20s was very soon a matter of basic fundamentals to a schools team a decade younger than them. Sport is relentless, a speeding floor underneath the feet of only those who can move fast enough to keep up with it.
Hickie’s story popped into my head on Saturday somewhere between the 60th and 70th rewind of Tadhg Furlong’s pass to Bundee Aki in the lead up to CJ Stander’s try. There’s no end of material with which to celebrate the Grand Slam, no shortage of moments to fill out the montages from here until the World Cup.
But there was something so completely transporting in that millisecond of poetry from Furlong that it feels here and now this morning like it will outlive everything else. The delicate grace of it as he sold the intent of full-on rumble to the English defence was like watching a heavy-metal drummer balance his stick on the back of his hand mid-solo. By the time you noticed it, it was over – but it had completely changed the scenario in front of your eyes.
This column is no authority to the nuts and bolts of rugby tactics and will happily defer to all who speak more wisely and more regularly on it. But you can't follow sport in Ireland and not understand Furlong was a cog in a Joe Schmidt wheel for that move and that Stander's try was the intended result from a designed play off an Ireland lineout.
There are very few people in life for whom “control freak” is used as a term of endearment. Field games in general are chaos so it is no surprise that the best coaches are the ones who can identify opportunities to put order on that chaos and facilitate their players in gaining advantage when they arise. In this realm, Schmidt is the control freak who makes other control freaks look like stoners.
So whatever else we can say about Furlong's role in the try, we know it wasn't as off-the-cuff as he made it look. Garry Ringrose said afterwards that they had run it in training during the week to get used to it and Schmidt actually referred to using it before against England but it only just failing to come off.
"We played the identical move against England three years ago in Dublin," Schmidt said. "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."
Hearing that, the really fascinating thing about it was that Furlong was the player chosen by Schmidt for the key pass in the move. Everything else in it – all the dummy runs, all the misdirection, all the English attention taken up by yet another Johnny Sexton wraparound – everything else is for nothing if the no-look pass to Aki isn't perfectly-time and deftly-delivered.
No big shock
It should probably be no big shock that Schmidt reckoned Furlong was the ideal candidate here and yet, for anyone watching Irish rugby down the years, it still feels like the kind of thing that deserves its own special word of celebration.
Wind the clock back 10 years and it's a reasonable bet that Brian O'Driscoll would have been first, second and third choice to be the one who unlocked the English defence there. It needed someone who was enough of a pure running threat to be respected and also had the special light magic in his fingers. A couple of the other backs would have been next in line. For all his glorious service to the jersey, nobody would have designed it with John Hayes in mind.
Ah look, maybe this is all just the excitement of the moment. Maybe the future is going to be filled with play-making 20-stone Irish props with David Copperfield hands as a matter of course just because that's what rugby evolution demands. If that's the case, at least in Tadhg Furlong, Ireland have a template to try and replicate along the way, an example of what's possible that was once presumed outlandish.
But equally, if it turns out that he’s a one-off, then what a true joy it is to be around to see him do it. The pleasure, the privilege, etc . . .