Murray Kinsella reports from London
THE CELEBRATIONS ARE going to last for a fair while yet but when the dust settles on Ireland’s third Grand Slam, the excitement and optimism about what lies ahead are going to be strong.
Joe Schmidt’s side produced a brilliantly composed performance in their 24-15 win over England yesterday to make history and the fact that so many of the players involved will only get better in the future is thrilling for Irish rugby.
Speaking in Twickenham afterwards, Schmidt said he felt “more relief than anything else,” although he swiftly followed that by stressing his pride in these Irish players.
The Ireland head coach rarely allows his emotions to emerge but the effort his men had put in against England did seem to have moved him.
“The defence,” said Schmidt. “21-5 up in the first eight minutes of the second half, you know you can’t let them get a score. I thought the defence there was immense, we really had to fight our way out of the 22, they laid siege to it for a period of time. There was a heck of a lot of character shown.
“I’m proud of how some guys got thrown in there and survived. It’s not the first time Kieran Marmion has ended up on the wing but it’s not his position of choice.
“Jordan Larmour hadn’t trained at 13 at all but we were going to put Joe Carbery at 10 so we knew we couldn’t put him at 13; he’s quite talented but he’s not two people. Jordan found his feet very well – Keith Earls might disagree, he might have gone over in the corner [when Larmour backed himself]. It’s a great learning opportunity for Jordan.
“Garry Ringrose really grew in stature and bossed that backline, with Joey inside at 10, and Jordan outside.
“Even Jacob Stockdale is still a kid. Because he’s played every game and he’s growing and learning, people take for granted that he hasn’t had much rugby at this level or provincial level really.”
And that’s what is so exciting. If Stockdale is this good when he is still only 21, imagine what he can do when he’s experienced and even more confident.
The exuberance of youth is so powerful in him and others, and with a tour of Australia to come this summer, a Test against the All Blacks in Dublin in November ahead too, as well as the World Cup next year, Ireland look well placed to grow even more.
“It’s incredibly hard to predict,” said Schmidt on the topic of how much more is left in this Ireland squad. “They are growing and getting better and understanding more but there is still a long way to go for those players.
“And to be honest, we rely still on the same hub. Conor Murray was immense today, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony were fantastic. Dan Leavy did a superb job today.
“Young James Ryan, he’s getting better all the time, and with Hendy [Iain Hendersion] back right up there man-handling people. Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg is very young in terms of being a tighthead.
“For Andrew Porter to come on as a 21-year-old and lock the scrum down, and even do a bit more than that, I thought our scrum really grew into the game.
“Youthful enthusiasm is being tempered by the experienced guys that certainly have been there before. I think that blend is working for us.”
When Schmidt speaks about Ireland’s experienced “hub,” out-half Johnny Sexton is obviously a major part of the picture.
The Leinster man clearly played while injured at least once in this Grand Slam championship, and he took another battering for his team yesterday – requiring a HIA in the first half and then departing with around 15 minutes of the game left to be replaced by Carbery.
“He felt really good today going into the game,” said Schmidt. “Johnny attracts a fair bit of attention. He’s perfectly happy – some of the attention he brings on himself, trying to smash people back when he’s standing on the tryline, making sure they don’t get over it.
“I think that’s how he bloodied his nose in the first place. He was fine, he was totally coherent but he was starting to fatigue for sure, just because of the workload.
“His confrontational tackle ability, commitment, insanity, he’s such a fantastic contributor to the group.
“He runs such a sharp game. His kick [for the Ringrose try] was pinpoint, at the very edge of Rob [Kearney]’s reach. He’s just such a good decision-maker.”
And any discussion of Ireland’s core players must include captain Rory Best, who was superb on the big day in London.
His set-piece work at scrum and lineout was exemplary, while his dealings with referee Angus Gardner were calm, influential, well-timed and decisive – in contrast to England’s Dylan Hartley.
The Ulsterman has still not signed a new IRFU contract and though he said recently that a decision should be reached soon, Schmidt indicated yesterday that it’s not quite there yet.
“He’s getting faster and faster on that zimmer frame,” said Schmidt when asked if the IRFU will look to finalise a new contract that could see the Ireland captain through until the 2019 World Cup.
“That’s something that could come to fruition, sooner rather than later. It’s like everything with Rory, it’s hard to get him to make a decision. We’ll see how we go with that.”
Sexton, Best and co. will continue to be important pieces moving forward, but the new generation adds plenty of excitement for the challenges in the short-term and long-term future.
They have set a fine standard for themselves by starting with a Slam.
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