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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 22 September, 2018
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7 moments that helped tilt Ireland towards Grand Slam glory

We’ll always have Paris (and Jacob Stockdale intercept tries).

DURING HIS FINEST hour, Joe Schmidt made sure to divulge the secret ingredient that makes all the best-laid plans come together. A little luck.

“He said you need to get this, this and this in order,” relayed the Kiwi, citing a speech he had heard Alex Ferguson make regarding the importance of the great intangible, “and then you need a bit of luck.

“In really big games, when you know you’re up against a team that are at least as good as you are, those moments make a difference.”

France v Ireland - NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship Source: Sportsfile via Getty Images

With their nearest rival a full 11 points back in the table, none of the five teams below Ireland in the final standings would claim to be as good as Schmidt’s side have been over the past seven weeks. But moment-to-moment, there have been numerous close shaves that made all the difference.

7. The Twickenham dead-ball area gets an extension

England v Ireland - NatWest Six Nations Source: Mark Leech/Offside

Owen Farrell’s ability put a ball on a plate for chasing wings with his right boot was in clear evidence on Saturday and throughout the Championship.

It was surely with this in mind that the RFU felt that an extra metre of space to aim at behind the posts would be of benefit when the blue paint was applied. Rather than benefit Farrell though, who kept his stab through to Elliott Daly nice and shallow, it proved a decision for the history books as it allowed Jacob Stockdale power to a seventh try in the Championship and moved Ireland from a 5 – 14 lead to an ultimately unassailable 21 points on the board by the half-time whistle.

6. The playmaking prop

It’s unfair to judge other props by Tadhg Furlong’s standards right now. The Wexford man is immense at his core function of scrummaging and around the rucks, but it’s his ability in open play that truly put him in the Pantheon.

furlong hands

This subtle reverse pass to Bundee Aki required dainty foot-work as well as slick hands and the tighthead made it look unbelievably routine.

You could include Aki’s decision after the break as a key moment too. He’s looking right and everyone watching the screen is screaming for him to hit Ringrose, but Watson has the outside centre lined up pretty well. So instead, Aki selects the more difficult option of passing off his left against the grain to CJ Stander.

5. Farrell’s composure fails

The opening minutes in Twickenham saw Ireland face into an onslaught of pressure. The hits were hard, the clear-outs were fierce, the warning/intimidation call ‘Murray, Murray!’ was already coming from English pillars and Rory Best’s line-outs were coming under pressure.

Then, with 4.19 on the clock, Owen Farrell left the aggression level on too high as he chased his own grubber and ploughed through the left-footed Rob Kearney while he made a pressured right-footed clearance kick.

England v Ireland - NatWest Six Nations Source: Mitchell Gunn

Suddenly, Ireland had the chance to turn messy possession on their five-metre line to a penalty near halfway and then to a line-out platform just outside England’s 22.

From there, Johnny Sexton sent a massive Garryowen skyward and it came down, quite literally, with snow on it and Garry Ringrose – via a bit of luck, as it appeared that Kearney had knocked the ball on from Anthony Watson’s grasp – put Ireland into a lead which they would not look back from.

An invaluable try on the back of 95 cheap metres.

4. Jacob Stockdale’s third intercept try of the Championship

It’s a while back, so bear with me, but remember a time before Ireland were the 2018 Six Nations champions. The opening quarter against Scotland, a team who cut Ireland apart in 2017, were worrying minutes indeed as Gregor Townsend’s men looked intent on bringing their Calcutta Cup form to Dublin.

The cheer that greeted Peter Horne’s mis-placed pass was one containing no small bit of relief. Once it was in Stockdale’s possession, few doubted the game was turned.

Source: Six Nations Rugby/YouTube

3. Jacob Stockdale’s second intercept try of the Championship

Speaking of relief, a fortnight earlier brought a real out-pouring as Stockdale once again shot out of the line and turned defence into a seven-pointer.

Ireland were on the back foot as Wales finished strong, stretching Ireland’s defence almost to breaking point, after tries from Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans sliced Ireland’s advantage down to just three points. The 21-year-old continues to make the brave call to shoot out and steal any ball that’s spending longer than it needs to in the air.

Source: Six Nations Rugby/YouTube

(Want a look at Stockdale’s first intercept of the Six Nations? Here’s the hat-trick opener)

2. Lethal Leavy’s breakdown

After Gareth Davies’ try had given Wales a 5 – 10 lead in the Aviva Stadium, the visitors were building momentum and cranking pressure up on Ireland as they mixed power and width through their game.

With 28 minutes on the clock, Steff Evans cut inside off the left flank. He was tackled by Cian Healy to allow Dan Leavy – at best Ireland’s third-choice openside before the Championship kicked off – went on the poach.

Despite being smashed by Alun Wyn Jones’ clear-out, Leavy barely flinches and the penalty goes Ireland’s way.

leavy

This isn’t a linear pivot point, subsequent errors allowed Wales extend the lead, but at that moment the message Leavy sent was more important than a score — and those came soon enough too.

1. Drop at goal, Grand Slam at stake

We could have easily extended this list by around 41 to include each and every phase that led up to the match-winning opportunity on the opening weekend.

Source: Six Nations Rugby/YouTube

Such exquisite execution of a skill in dramatic circumstances deserved to have a Championship accompany it.

It took a few weeks and four further wins, but that’s exactly what Johnny Sexton’s drop-goal delivered.

‘It’s one of the great days for us’: Snow-delayed Ireland return to warm welcome after Grand Slam

‘I used to watch the Five Nations and think these places were on a whole different planet’

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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