At some point in every Grand Slam bid, the aspiring conqueror meets a steep ledge of adversity; a sheer face with no clear path to the top of the mountain, a Gordian Knot with no obvious unpicking.
For Wales in 2005, it was France in the springtime, at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. In the first half, the Dragons were blitzed: 15-6 down at the half, two tries to nil, and it could have been a whole lot worse.
Welsh head coach Mike Ruddock had made a few notes, but when he saw the calm faces of his players in the changing sheds he was reassured about the battle to come: “I didn’t tell them anything at half-time because those players have stared down the barrel of a gun before.”
Wales turned the momentum around in ten quicksilver minutes after the resumption of play, scoring two converted tries to hit the front and build a lead they never relinquished. Suddenly it was no longer Aurélien Rougerie trampling Shane Williams into the dirt, but the diminutive Welsh wizard running rings around his opposite number. It was his name-sake, Martyn, playing happy and loose, tapping penalties for fun. Hell, even the Welsh scrum began to advance rather than retreat.
Wales won by 24 points to 18 and it was smooth running all the way up the rest of the mountain in the next two rounds, to leave a small red flag fluttering at the summit for the first time in 27 years.
That Welsh team had a priceless quality. It had versatility: a multi-faceted elasticity rather than straight-ahead, ironclad power. It had forwards who could run and handle like backs: Martyn Williams, Michael Owen and Gethin Jenkins; it contained backs who could conjure something out of nothing, like Shane Williams and Gavin Henson.
The Ireland team of 2023 is built along similar lines, but it has already hit more rarefied heights than Wales managed 18 years ago. It is the world’s number-one ranked team, and it has won a series in New Zealand. You cannot ask for any more than that.
Ireland won in Murrayfield last Saturday and proved their own un-breakability in the process. Right from the start, the harpies of adversity hovered ready to steal the food off their plates. The men from the Emerald Isle lost their starting hooker, Dan Sheehan, after only 18 minutes, and his replacement Ronán Kelleher just after half-time. Their outstanding number 8, Caelan Doris, departed after only 12 minutes of action, and lock Iain Henderson was hors de combat after 24.
By the beginning of the second period, Ireland had their No 7, Josh Van der Flier, throwing the ball into their lineouts and a prop, Cian Healy, striking for the ball in the centre of their scrums. Far from buckling, the lineout still finished with higher retention rate than their opponents and the Healy-led scrum won two crucial penalties:
Cian Healy has moved from loosehead to tighthead for Leinster this season and it is no easy transition. As his comrade-in-arms at both provincial and Test level, Tadhg Furlong, observed: “I think the thing ‘Church’ has done unbelievably well is the transition from loose-head to tight-head, to hooker – and pick up all three so quickly.”
The man himself was quite philosophical about it all after the game:
“I think the last time I hit a scrum [as hooker] was about 2008. I’ve done a couple of set-ups here and there, but ‘live’? – it’s been a while. There are technicalities you can iron out, but at the end of the day you just hit and push – and strike!
“I went into the middle of two of the best props in the world, so I was in a relatively good starting place. I don’t mind if someone lifts me out of the middle of the scrum – but we finished with 15 players, not 14. That’s the greater cause.”
You cannot win at the top level of the modern game unless you have elasticity, the ability to field players with overlapping skill sets, players who can fill more than one role. That is where strength and resilience comes from, and nowhere is it more evident than in the play of the Irish wings, Mack Hansen and James Lowe.
Hansen can do the bread-and-butter, jobs like the chasing and regathering of high contestable kicks:
There was already a hint of things to come with the application of the finish on the other side of the field by Hansen’s partner-in-crime, James Lowe:
Lowe does not just stay wide on the edge to create space for the touchdown. He threatens to move inside his No 9 first, then fakes a cleanout at the ruck before finally dropping out to the left. His opposite number, Kyle Steyn, simply cannot keep track of all of the moves successfully.
Both of the Irish wings can do an openside’s work and jackal for the ball on the ground after a tackle has been completed:
Between them, the twin terrors won three turnovers on the deck, and long before the end of the second period Scotland were running scared of overplaying their hand wide to Hansen’s side:
Finn Russell turns away from the Ireland right wing looking for an in-pass, the ball springs loose, and that gives Lowe the opportunity to run the ball back and showcase his passing ability with a rocket of a line-ball out to Jamison Gibson-Park on the counter.
Lowe also displayed the quality of his left-foot kicking game, with only a quick-thinking ‘mark’ by Steyn denying him a 50/22:
But it was the facility with which both Ireland wingmen moved inside and threatened to become extra playmakers which was a decisive feature of the second half. As Johnny Sexton commented after the game, with Van der Flier stuck at the front of the lineout throwing in, Ireland could only really run one move through the back-line, with Hansen the key decision-maker in midfield:
It’s the same move, with the ball going out through Sexton and Bundee Aki (or vice versa) to Hansen sweeping around from the blind-side wing. When he gets the ball, it is Ireland’s naturalised Australian who makes the decision to keep and carry in the first instance, or fire out the long pass to Lowe in the second. That is versatility for you – the flip side to mental resilience.
It was no surprise that the try which finally gave Ireland some breathing space on the scoreboard should derive from Mack Hansen’s playmaking ability inside. Back in Australia with the Brumbies, they did not quite know what to make of talents: was he a 10, was he a fullback or was he a wing? With their elastic attacking structures, Ireland have come up with a definitive answer to all those questions:
These are the natural instincts of a man who loves making the play for others – the subtle step inside and the double-pump to fix all three of the Scotland players in front of him, rock them back on their heels and draw all defensive eyes towards him. That in turn frees up just enough space for Jack Conan to power past the recovering Duhan van der Merwe on his way to the corner flag.
Spider silk is one of the strongest and most elastic materials known to the natural world. The silk of the Darwin bark spider is ten times stronger than the Kevlar used for body armour, and five times stronger than steel (of the same diameter).
The Ireland team of 2023 has that kind of unbreakable tensile strength. It has the versatility to cover almost any emergency, and that is a function of both skill set and mental toughness. Flankers can throw into the lineout, props can hook, and their wings can do a bit of everything – chase the high ball, win turnovers like an open-side, kick and distribute like the best of outside halves. Oh yes, and they can finish moves too – nearly forgot that.
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