Ireland’s young guns stood tall and the experienced players controlled the game to secure Ireland’s third Grand slam title, reports Christine Coffey.
When the final whistle came on St. Patrick’s Day, Joe Schmidt was nowhere to be seen. A touch of class from the manager that managed to assemble and mould a squad with just the right balance of youth and experience to win Ireland’s third grand slam title. Quick to praise the effort of his players and deflect attention from himself, his post-match interview alluded to the humble nature of the genius behind Ireland’s efficient structure and attacking flair, both of which were crucial in this year’s championship.
The championship could have unravelled in a very different manner. Nobody needs reminding of the great escape in Paris but one knock on, one moment of ill-discipline in 41 phases, a few inches of a difference in the cross-field kick to Earls, anything off the famous drop-goal, or any other tiny nuance that did not go Ireland’s way and it would have been curtains on all grand slam ambitions after round one. Ronan O’Gara wouldn’t be the only one waking up the morning after the game feeling depressed. Injury concerns really tested the strength of this abrasive Irish side, especially in the back row and midfield. Those issues which beset the squad made this championship’s success all the more impressive. Come the Scotland game, we could have had Henshaw, Ringrose, and Farrell all putting their hand up for the number 13 shirt if injuries did not play their part. One of the squad’s most consistent performers, Dan Leavy may not have been involved at all had O’Brien not been returning from injury and had Josh Van der Flier not gone down in the opening game against France.
The Welsh side might consider themselves unlucky after their trip to the Aviva and if that floating pass had gone anywhere else but Stockdale’s grateful arms after the Ulster winger had shot up off the line, the final result might have been very different. As it was Stockdale scampered to one of the seven tries he would score in the championship and Ireland marched on to victory. In the final match we were awarded three tries with the assistance of the Television Match Official and all three of those tries were finished by the finest of margins. Kearney could have knocked the ball on up in the air, Bundee Aki showed great ability to keep the pass to Stander flat and not forward and Stockdale’s hands were precariously close to his knees for his try before the half. Fortune tends to favour the hardworking, and Ireland had their fair share of luck for their tireless efforts over the course of the championship.
Our UCD representatives played a larger role than perhaps initially expected at the beginning of the campaign, but such was their contribution in all areas of the field that by the last game, most were playing with the ease of seasoned pros. Luke McGrath would consider himself unlucky with the timing of his injury and Josh Van der Flier’s championship ended before it really began, but that gave UCD’s Dan Leavy the opportunity to make his mark at open-side flanker on the international stage, an opportunity he took with both hands after a string of six solid performances. Andrew Porter grew in confidence game by game and maintained the high standards of the pack when he came off the bench to make big impacts.
The final game called for big performances and big statements from the start and any questions about whether John Ryan was ready for the big stage were answered emphatically with a ferocious hit on Mario Itoje in the opening minute of the game. The young lock seemed perfectly comfortable playing alongside Henderson and Toner and against some of the most experienced and talented locks in the world. Gary Ringrose’s return from injury could not have come at a better time and the 23-year-old had no problem slotting back in at 13, despite the limited game time all season and only having played one game for Leinster this season. Rob Kearney was at his dependable best under the high ball and added some much-needed experience to balance this youthful side. He joins Rory Best in an exclusive group of the two Irish Grand Slam winners but unlike Best, Kearney started in both the 2009 and the 2018 successes, a testament to the impact he still makes from full-back and the confidence of his manager in him.
In light of the recent success, Best and Kearney have both been offered contract extensions with the IRFU until after the 2019 world cup in Japan. The Irish young guns undoubtedly have the potential for a world cup in them, but perhaps the contract extensions mark a backing from the IRFU and a belief in next years campaign. If there is one thing to take from this year’s campaign, it is that this side are never dead and buried, no matter the injuries, no matter the stakes, no matter the opposition.