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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 15 September, 2019

A key victory over the old enemy that kick-started Ireland's 12-game winning streak

At the end of a disappointing 2017 Six Nations campaign, Joe Schmidt’s side stopped England from claiming the Grand Slam at the Aviva Stadium.

Johnny Sexton (right) and Simon Zebo embrace each other at the final whistle.
Johnny Sexton (right) and Simon Zebo embrace each other at the final whistle.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

SOME MOMENTS DESERVE to be immortalised.

Volkswagen have come on board as partners of The42, which will see them sponsor all of our rugby coverage for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. 

Ahead of the tournament, ‘Onward’ — an eight-part series — will be looking back at the unforgettable days from Joe Schmidt’s time in charge as he aims to end his six-year spell on a high.

Next up, Ciaran Kennedy looks back on a game that began Ireland’s 12-match winning streak in 2017.

If Ireland thought that beating New Zealand in 2016 would signify the start of a new era of success, then the early stages of the following Six Nations campaign would bring Joe Schmidt’s side crashing back to reality.

By the end of the 2017 Six Nations, the 40-29 defeat of New Zealand already felt like a lifetime ago. Ireland went into their final game of the tournament, at home to England, with just two wins from four outings.

It had all started to veer wildly off script from the first weekend. Away to Scotland, Ireland’s bus was delayed on the way to Murrayfield. As a result, the team’s pre-match preparations were disrupted and a slow start cost Ireland dearly, with Scotland’s Stuart Hogg crossing for two tries in the opening 20 minutes. Schmidt, famed for his attention to the smallest of details, found the circumstances surrounding the defeat particularly irritating.

“We arrived at the stadium 10 or 15 minutes late and we were late for most things in the first half,” he said.

Ireland slowly began to get their house in order as the campaign progressed. They arrived on time to play Italy and recorded a routine win in Rome, before a promising defeat of France in Dublin. Having fallen 6-0 behind, a Conor Murray try put Ireland in the lead, before Johnny Sexton took control and extended Ireland’s advantage. The fly-half kicked two penalties and a drop goal as he hit the 600-point mark in international rugby, Ireland running out 19-9 winners on the night.

On the back of that controlled, clinical performance, the whispers of an Irish title charge began to increase in volume. Such talk quickly ended following a demoralising defeat in Wales.

Ireland were held tryless in Cardiff as Wales won 22-9, their tries coming from Jamie Roberts and a brace by George North. It was a frustrating evening for Ireland, who failed to capitalise on a string of scoring opportunities and made far too many errors.

England would beat Scotland later that day, meaning Eddie Jones’ men could wrap up a Grand Slam in Dublin on the final weekend.

a-view-of-the-aviva-stadium-as-the-two-teams-stand-for-the-national-anthems The Aviva Stadium. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With the championship already decided, Ireland technically had nothing to play for. Of course, this Ireland team were never going to view things that way.

In their eyes, the game with England was an opportunity to prove that they were not too far off the pace. England were unbeaten under Jones, and were aiming to secure a second Grand Slam in a row and claim a world record 19th consecutive win. Beating the Six Nations champions offered a perfect way for Ireland to remind everyone of where they stood.

Yet once again Ireland’s best laid plans were thrown into disarray shortly before kick-off.

Vice-captain Jamie Heaslip was a late withdrawal after being injured in the warm-up. Little did we know, we would never see him on a rugby pitch again. With Conor Murray also unavailable through injury, Ireland’s task was becoming increasingly difficult.

Not for the first time, Schmidt’s side managed to upset the odds, bringing an intensity and physicality to their game that had been missing for much of the spring.

jamie-heaslip-who-was-a-late-withdrawl-from-the-game Jamie Heaslip watching from the sideline after his late withdrawal. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

They stormed into a first half lead thanks to six points from the boot of Sexton and an Iain Henderson try, with Sexton kicking a second penalty shorty after the hour mark. A shellshocked England had no response, and could only muster up three Owen Farrell penalties.

Jones’ side still collected the trophy afterwards, but the performance had raised far more questions than answers, and signified a changing of the guard in the northern hemisphere.

We talked all week that it wasn’t about stopping them doing anything, it was about producing a performance worthy of this team, this crowd and the occasion that it was,” said Ireland captain Rory Best.

The manner of the win provided evidence that Ireland were still a high-performing outfit, but the biggest winner on the night was arguably Peter O’Mahony. Originally excluded from the starting 15, he was drafted in as a last-minute replacement for Heaslip, and delivered a commanding man of the match performance, which included a superb lineout steal as the clock entered the final five minutes.

irelands-peter-omahony-and-courtney-lawes-in-the-lineout Peter O’Mahony and Courtney Lawes in the lineout. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

It kick-started a huge couple of months for O’Mahony, who that summer would enjoy the honour of being a Lions Test captain against New Zealand.

“Look, it came from a special group of guys,” O’Mahony said.

“We were disappointed with the way some of the results had gone. But we knew deep down there was a lot of heart there, fellahs showing up for each other and showing up for what was special to them, not just on the pitch but off it as well.

“It was a great performance by everyone. We knew we were close. It broke our hearts, really.

“We needed to show everyone how much it meant to us and I think we did that. It was a nice end to it but this team is big enough to be competing for championships and at the end of the day we want silverware.”

kieran-marmion-is-tackled-by-joe-launchbury Kieran Marmion is tackled by Joe Launchbury. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Also notable was the performance of a number of fringe players. Kieran Marmion was excellent on the occasion of his first Six Nations start, while Luke McGrath and Niall Scannell both impressed off the bench.

If the win restored the Irish public’s faith in the team, it seemed to do the same for the players themselves.

From that night, Ireland embarked on a 12-match unbeaten run that would end in Australia in summer 2018. Among the many highlights of that incredible run was the sight of Schmidt’s side securing Grand Slam success in Twickenham, 12 months after welcoming Six Nations champions England to the Aviva Stadium.

There was no doubting that the balance of power had shifted.

Volkswagen have been proud sponsors of Irish Rugby since 2011, and they are also rugby partners of The42 during the 2019 World Cup. For more, visit volkswagen.ie/rugby  

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