THERE’S ALWAYS A moment. In every game, in every team, there’s always some incident that ignites or represents what the side stands for. You could say that came early on Saturday, Keith Earls’ try, a set-piece move, honed on the training field, transferred to the big arena, players executing the coach’s plan.
That score was like a vaccine injection to Ireland, all the fears, doubts and defeats of 2020 wiped away in an instant. Yet we’re not going to talk about the obvious thing, instead opting for something completely different. For some of you, it may already have slipped your mind. For others, it was the symbol of defiance and self-belief, the sight of the smallest member of Ireland’s pack, Josh van der Flier, thieving possession from the biggest guy on the England team, Billy Vunipola.
It came in the final quarter, shortly after Bundee Aki’s dismissal, Ireland fighting desperately to hold onto their substantial lead, Vunipola – all 19 stone of him – losing his grip on the ball, England their grip on this game.
You may have read a biblical story about this kind of contest once but the difference on Saturday was that no one was courteous enough to offer van der Flier the use of a sling.
Instead, he noted his opponent’s hesitancy, and seized his chance, cheekily picking the bigger man’s pocket, the kind of incident Charles Dickens would have worked into Oliver Twist.
Van der Flier steals possession. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
“Throughout the week, we talked about how we have had that physicality and desire to put hits in but at times we have been a bit sloppy, where we didn’t use our heads,” said van der Flier of the steal. “We’re pleased that we were switched on mentally for what they were going to bring to us but also that we had a physical edge. You need the balance.”
Balance, it is the one thing Ireland have lacked since 2018. In Joe Schmidt’s final year, they played robotically, slavishly adhering to a demanding coach’s instructions, each ‘Test’ match feeling like an exam, players fearful of the repercussions if they messed things up. It was learning by rote, creativity stifled.
Then came the big change, Schmidt out, Farrell in. A new coach meant new policies and everyone kept talking about ‘heads up rugby’ and ‘smiling faces’ at training. There weren’t as many smiling on the field, though, when England, France, England again, Wales and France, defeated Ireland.
Under Schmidt the complaint was they were being fed too much detail; under Farrell it seemed as if they were not being given enough of it. But Saturday was different, the concentration in defence during England’s initial onslaught as critical to the victory as the potency in attack when Earls and Jack Conan got a sniff of the tryline.
Earls gets a sniff of the tryline. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“One thing we have learned a lot from when we played them in the autumn was that they put incredible pressure on our ball carriers which was why one of our focus points for Saturday was to keep the ball moving, because we knew that would make it a bit more difficult for them to put their hits in,” said van der Flier. “That plan worked quite well.”
As did so many other things, the scrum, the attacking line out, the set-piece move for Earls’ try, the fast flowing, phase-building play that led to the Conan score. “They are a few of the things we have been working on all throughout the Six Nations but you probably don’t get to see all of them until it all clicks like it did on Saturday.”
If we’re being honest, we didn’t see it coming. Yet we should have. Even when Ireland were comprehensively beaten by England and France last year, they had dominant patches in those games, as they did in the first half of their matches against Wales and France this year.
What was different about Saturday was that they pieced everything together, holding England to just three points during their best spell in the first quarter – ‘we kind of said to one another, don’t do anything silly, don’t show indiscipline, don’t let it become a two score game’.
Surviving a siege was only one part of the plan, being ruthless and exploiting their opportunities a bigger deal. “You don’t give a team like England time on the ball because if you do, they can be very, very dangerous,” said van der Flier. “That was a crucial part in terms of how well it went for us, I guess.”
Yet he knows not to get carried away. Good and all as Saturday was, it was hard not to think of two other season-saving wins over England on the final day of the championship, the one orchestrated by Schmidt in 2017 and an earlier one won under Declan Kidney in 2011.
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The 2017 victory proved to be a turning point, leading to a sequence of results that saw Ireland beat the remaining nine sides in the world’s top ten over a 12 month spell, collecting a Grand Slam, a series win in Australia and an All Black scalp along the way.