Tuesday, 20 March 2018

GRAND SLAM IS RORY’S BEST DAY thumbnailIreland captain Rory Best celebrates the Grand Slam with his children Ben and Penny at Twickenham.

Ireland captain Rory Best has declared leading his men in green to their glorious Grand Slam on St Patrick's Day as the highlight of his record-breaking rugby career.

The 35-year-old from Poyntzpass became only the third man in Irish history to skipper the national team to a Championship clean sweep, which was completed by a wonderful win at Twickenham on Saturday.

Front row warrior Rory had warned ahead of the match that Ireland would need to save their best until last to overcome England in their formidable fortress and they duly delivered a superb performance in winning 24-15.

It was a thoroughly deserved victory and, if anything, the scoreline flattered a well-beaten English side who had won the title themselves in each of the past two seasons but have ended up fifth in this spring's Nat West Six Nations table.

Before the Championship started, this Twickenham clash had been billed as a likely Grand Slam showdown, but English losses away to Scotland and France tore up that script.

With all the other teams having lost at least two of their first four games it meant Ireland being confirmed champions for a third time in five seasons under Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt with the last round of fixtures still to come.

But Best, one of only two survivors from Ireland's last Grand Slam of 2009, which had ended a wait of 61 years, admitted that being presented with the Six Nations trophy on the back of a defeat would have been a huge anti-climax.

That had happened England in the corresponding game last year when they arrived in Dublin with the title wrapped up and came away with the trophy but a sense of what might have been after Ireland pooped their intended Grand Slam party.

On Saturday, Ireland were up against an English side which hadn't lost a home match in the Championship since 2012 or been beaten at Twickenham under current coach Eddie Jones, so Best was under no illusions about the tough task facing his side.

But Ireland laid the foundations for victory during a near-perfect first half as they established an interval lead of 21-5 which was surely beyond their wildest dreams and thereafter they fought hard to deny England a way back.

Ireland were efficient, ferocious and disciplined against an English side who were beaten at the breakdown and gave away far too many penalties, but this was also a highly impressive peformance full of ambition, invention and smart, ruthless rugby from the visitors.

Fittingly for St Patrick's Day, perhaps the men in green got a few breaks but they earned everything which went their way rather than just relying on the notional luck of the Irish, and the job was done by the time England crossed for a consolation try with the clock red.

Joined on the pitch by his children at the final whistle, an emotional Best declared himself 'massively proud' as he reflected on the achievement and one of the greatest Ireland displays of all time.

"Words can't describe how delighted we are. We knew it would be a really tough task today and we tried to attack England with and without the ball right from the off. We wanted to make every single moment count, to try and build as close to the perfect 80 minutes as possible," revealed Rory.

"It was a ferocious Test match but we knew the reward would be worth every ounce of effort required. I'm massively proud of this team and must give great credit not just to the 23 guys on duty today but the 30-odd players who have been involved during this campaign."

Best became the first Ulsterman to lead Ireland to Grand Slam glory and, although he had made a significant contribution to the 2009 success under Brian O'Driscoll with one start and four appearances off the bench, this triumph meant the world to the teak-tough hooker.

"Every kid grows up dreaming of playing for Ireland and when you do that the next thing you want is to win something with Ireland. To captain your country is an honour but to captain the team to a Grand Slam in that special green jersey is something dreams are made of," Best enthused.

"It's the biggest highlight of my career. I know a lot of teams say it if they do well or win games but this bunch of players and management is special. We're a really tight group and to do it with them is just great."

Ireland's third most capped player of all-time with 111 Test appearances, Best has now won two Grand Slams and four Six Nations titles as a player and Saturday's success enhances his standing as an exceptionally successful captain.

Before following fellow hooker Karl Mullen, from 1948, and superstar O'Driscoll as a Grand Slam skipper, Best had already led Ireland to a first-ever victory over New Zealand and a historic hat-trick of wins over the southern hemisphere big three in the same calendar year.

Now he has joined Leinster's O'Driscoll and another totemic figure of Irish rugby, Munster's Paul O'Connell as a Six Nations title-winning captain this decade and the best may be yet to come for Schmidt's side.

Now ranked second in the world after 12 successive victories in international rugby, Ireland are regarded as serious contenders for next year's World Cup in Japan even though they have never got beyond the quarter-final stage at eight previous tournaments.

Best's current contract with the IRFU runs out this summer but the hope is that he will sign a new deal taking him through to the end of the World Cup even though he turns 37 before that tournament begins.

The fact that he has played in all but one of Ireland's last 60 Six Nations matches, the exception coming when he had to pull out of last season's match against Italy in Rome due to an overnight stomach bug, dating back to 2007, is testament to Best's incredible durability.

A renowned world-class scrummager, Ireland won all 12 lineouts during the hooker's time on the field on Saturday and his hard work in the trenches still sets the tone for this side, so Best is far from a fading force as a player.

Although this team has several very capable generals in key positions, Best's calm leadership, well-judged dealings with referees and huge experience are all evidently valued by Schmidt, who appointed Rory captain when O'Connell retired at the end of the 2015 World Cup.

Going out on the high of captaining Ireland to a rare Grand Slam may have momentary appeal to Best but being part of a fourth World Cup campaign must surely be an appealing prospect, particularly given the high hopes that the men in green can do something special this time.

Only twice before have Ireland won in both Paris and London in the same Championship campaign and some of this side's young guns have yet to lose a Test match in the green jersey.

Fresh faces contributed so much to this Grand Slam, not least Best's sole fellow ever-present from Ulster, winger Jacob Stockdale, who at the age of 21 became the first player from any country to score seven tries in a single Six Nations.

After Johnny Sexton's last-gasp drop goal salvaged victory from the jaws of defeat against France in Paris, Ireland ran up bonus-point home wins over Italy, Wales and Scotland with Stockdale bagging a brace of tries each time.

His intercepts have become the stuff of legend and Stockdale's killer instinct was in evidence at Twickenham too when he chased his chip down the left touchline in first half injury-time and somehow managed to ground the ball before it crossed the dead-ball line.

The try, converted by young reserve flyhalf Joey Carbery, who was on while Sexton received running repairs to a bloodied face, was Ireland's reward for keeping playing when the clock was red and gave them that 16-point advantage at the break.

Centre Garry Ringrose had been awarded a try early on after consultation with the television match official following full back Rob Kearney's challenge for a dropping bomb by Sexton and that settled any understandable visiting nerves.

The video ref was called upon again to validate Ireland's second try early in the second quarter which came after Sexton hit the upright with a penalty, but the ball was won back and a magical move led to No 8 CJ Stander touching down against the base of the post.

Sexton added the extras and, although wing Elliott Daly touched down an Owen Farrell grubber when Ireland were down to 14 men with Peter O'Mahony in the sinbin, Stockdale's converted try more than cancelled it out before half-time.

Thankfully Sexton was back on the field for the start of the second half and, although Ireland had to weather an inevitable storm, the green wall wasn't breached and world-class scrumhalf Conor Murray even nudged the lead out to 19 points with a well-struck penalty.

Daly got his second try seconds after Best was replaced by his regular understudy Sean Cronin and Sexton soon gave way to Carbery but Ireland, in spite of converted Kiwi Bundee Aki having become the latest centre casualty of this campaign, held out until the other winger Johnny May crossed from the last play of the afternoon.

Farrell, whose dad Andy is a key member of the Ireland management team as defence coach, completed his hat-trick of failed conversion attempts as the celebrations began on the visiting bench before Aussie referee Angus Gardner's final whistle officially confirmed the cherished Slam.

The snow which had begun flurrying on an absolutely freezing afternoon in south west London eventually led to the cancellation of the scheduled homecoming celebration at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on Sunday, but the warm memories will last forever for Best and his heroic team.

Reflecting on a campaign almost derailed by a late French try in Paris at the start of February before Sexton's stunning strike, Best spoke of how Ireland's determination and hard work were eventually rewarded with unforgettable glory.

"I think we knew that we had to target the first game and then go one game at a time after that. You look at the fine margins and how we looked dead and buried in Paris having controlled a game that we should have already won. Those are the little moments.

"It's reflective of how much we know the effort that went in and how special that kick from Johnny was. We wanted to ensure that magic moments like that don't go unrewarded and our ultimate reward has come this afternoon," reflected Rory.



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