What could be more – or less – natural than Ireland winning at Twickenham?
Keith Duggan: Ireland’s push for the Six Nations grand slam is a touch unsettling
Field of dreams: Jonathan Sexton takes a kick at Twickenham on Friday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Isn’t there something unsettling about the mood of confidence behind Ireland’s push for the Six Nations grand slam? Doesn’t it all feel a bit too good and contented to be fully trustworthy?
Into the heart of it, then: into Twickenham, the forbidding citadel of resolute Englishness, with the ghosts of all those rugby maulings of winters past when those white shirts and those names plucked from the Domesday Book – Underwood, Carling, Guscott, Andrew, Moore, Johnson, Dallaglio, Dawson, Robinson, Wilkinson, Cohen – seemed to spell out inescapably bleak Saturdays after which the best of Irish rugby looked irrecoverably exhausted, demoralised, bewildered and beaten.
The home-counties crowd sang their dirge Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. On the BBC Bill Beaumont purred like a satisfied tabby, and every outing seemed like another stinging reminder that this was their game after all.
For generations of Irish rugby players England at Twickenham became an experience to survive as much as a game to play
Just five wins over there for Ireland since way, way back in 1980 and a necklace of scarifying experiences ever since, with those murderous scores: 35-3 in 1988, 23-0 in 1990, 38-9 in 1992, 35-17 in 1988, 50-18 in 2000, 45-11 in 2002, 33-10 in 2008. For generations of Irish rugby players England at Twickenham became an experience to survive as much as a game to play.
It is why the moments of brightness stand out so vividly against the overwhelming narrative of English supremacy: why the 25-20 defeat and Donal Lenihan’s block-down try on a shockingly cold day in1986 actually felt like a kind of victory and why Simon Geoghegan’s try from nothing in the 12-13 win in 1994 appeared miraculous, defying the moral order of the universe.
It can be said that old games mean nothing. But be certain that this England team will feel the hand of the Protectorate on their shoulders at 2.45pm today. It has been a miserable week for England, compounded by the resurrection of Eddie Jones’s throwaway moment of daftness. They won’t want to compound an abysmal season by joining the England sides of 1982, 1994, 2004, 2006 and 2010 by caving against the Irish, let alone watch them celebrate a grand slam in their theatre.
If history means nothing then how can we explain the torrent of emotion at the Ireland-England encounter at Croke Park in 2007? In the days before that game the English squad were given a history lesson they neither expected nor wanted and must have privately concluded that, after everything, it would probably be bad form to show up and actually win. The Irish, meanwhile, appeared like a team possessed from the first notes of the national anthem. They won by 30 points. A year later, back at Twickenham, they lost by 23.
Ireland’s most recent (and second ever) grand-slam season, in 2009, felt fraught from beginning to end. The team had won just two games in the previous Six Nations and kind of improvised their way – particularly in the 14-13 win against England, again at Croke Park – to that madcap finish in Cardiff, when Ronan O’Gara summoned every bit of Corkness in his blood to land his signature drop goal against Wales.
Even then Ireland had to wait, helpless and addled, as Stephen Jones set up with his endgame penalty kick, which would have killed the moment. For those few seconds while his kick spiralled to the posts, team and country were helpless, and the occasion felt familiar to us: fated, beyond all earthly control, sent by either heaven or hell. Then the ball fell just below the bar, and bedlam followed.
Ireland have become masterful at seeming to take the mystery and magic out of crossing the try line
None of that kind of agonising melodrama has followed Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in 2018. If Jonathan Sexton’s drop goal in Paris evoked immediate comparison to the O’Gara kick, it still felt different in the aura of calmness and exacting methodology with which the team worked the ball to that point. They got their lucky break that day, and since then Ireland have crushed teams in a way that has, perversely, taken much of the drama out of the tournament for Irish fans.
There has been some muted discussion about whether the rigorously coached and set-piece style of Schmidt’s Ireland is a little dull to watch: that the Irish might have become boring. The quick answer – that they’ve racked up 17 tries so far – doesn’t really answer anything. Eight of those were scored against the Italians. Three came courtesy of Jacob Stockdale’s uncanny run of intercept tries. Of the five scored against Wales, four were straightforward catch-and-crash from point-blank range.
Ireland have become masterful at seeming to take the mystery and magic out of crossing the try line: they just reach that point and then find a way to work the ball across it. They give the impression that if, on one of their methodical forays upfield, the try line were suddenly moved a further 50m away, they would give a collective shrug and continue to plough their way towards it.
All week Joe Schmidt has been understatedly brilliant at harnessing the national mood into one of organised composure. He isn’t backing down from the rarity of the occasion and the opportunity at Twickenham. He threw in the word “dream” once or twice. But in the steadiness of his language and tone he has steered clear of so much of the negative mythology of what games at Twickenham have meant for Irish teams ever since the England RFU began to get serious about itself, in the mid-1980s.
All week the attitude has been one of why not? What could be more natural on St Patrick’s Day than to watch Ireland, ranked second in the rugby-playing world, behind only New Zealand, march out at Twickenham and remain unfazed by the scale of the day, to simply stick with the game plan and keep on winning? The other question to ask is: what could be stranger than seeing that happen?
By the time the great, lachrymose St Patrick’s Day parade kicks off on Fifth Avenue, Ireland will either be grand-slam winners or they won’t. Word will spread through the various parades in the various green-tinted parade capitals across the world. Schmidt has been a genius at ensuring his Ireland team make the right decisions at the right time virtually all the time. The only thing he can’t legislate for is that moment, just after 2pm, when the here and now of Twickenham and the rarity of the day and the height to which they have climbed become apparent. History beckons. Don’t look down.