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The unstoppable Irish

• Posted in Rugby Union • By JoeBaker

It is remarkable how wrong we can all get it. Leading up to the 2018 Six Nations Championship, all the talk was about how to stop the mighty English. The Eddie Jones juggernaut that had lost just one of 23 games going into the tournament and was aiming to become the first ever team to win three consecutive titles, cementing itself as the premier challengers to the All Blacks ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup. 

The result? The favourites finish second from bottom in their worst Six Nations for 35 years. Yet for all the focus on England's ncomprehensible disintegration from winning machine to habitual losers, it was the Irish who really stole the show. A Grand Slam, the third in their history, was thoroughly deserved and it is now Joe Schmidt’s perfectly balanced, expansive side that look like the Northern Hemisphere’s best bet for Japan.  

Here we take a look at the standout players who helped the Irish on the way to their latest bit of Six Nations history: 

Jacob Stockdale 

Run through the annals of Six Nations history and each year you will find one player coming from left field to set the tournament alight. In 2018 it was Ireland’s flying wing Jacob Stockdale. The 21-year-old Ulster player broke the record for the number of tries with 7 as Ireland romped to the Grand Slam – not bad for your first ever Six Nations campaign. Since making his debut against in the USA in the summer of 2017, where he scored within 14 minutes, Stockdale has gone on to cross the line 11 times in 9 matches. He showed all his deadly finishing skills in Ireland’s five matches, with that remarkable and unteachable instinct to get himself in the right place at the right time as well as his great power, handling, passing and speed. Watching him tearing through experienced defences it was easy to forget just how inexperienced he is. Stockdale is certainly one to watch.  

Tadgh Furlong 

It takes a remarkable player to redefine a position. Yet that is what the tighthead prop Tadgh Furlong has done. Last year was his breakthrough, this was yet further confirmation that he is one of the best on the planet. Each match the British and Irish Lion reinforced the view that he is a world-class scrummager, as well as a monster in the tackle and a skilled passer. As many have observed, he has natural traits that most backs would be envious of, whilst he is able to move out of rucks and into carries like an experienced back rower. It says something that many pundits have been debating whether he could end up being one of the best tightheads of all time. The final match against England was fitting for Furlong – a man of the match performance and the pass of the game to set up the crucial winning try.  

Connor Murray 

Is Connor Murray the best scrum half in the world right now? It’s a pretty compelling argument. There is no doubt that he is now simply world class. A superb defensive box-kicker, he is also destructive and dangerous sniping out from behind rucks. He didn’t put a foot wrong all tournament, even stepping up kick points off the tee when required. Not many scrum halves are built like him – he could easily do a job as a centre with his pace, running lines and passing. Murray rarely looks ruffled and holds a natural authority on the field that few have. At 28 years of age, Murray is in his prime and only seems to be improving. Alongside New Zealand’s Aaaron Smith, in current form he would walk into any team in the world.  

CJ Stander 

In the 2017 Six Nations, it was CJ Stander who came out of nowhere to lead the charge for Ireland as they denied England their own Grand Slam. That was followed by an impressive Lions tour in New Zealand and come this tournament the versatile back-rower was still at the top of his game. In fact, he seemed to be getting even better. Aside from capping a superb campaign with a try against England, he was a relentless presence at the back of the scrum and the breakdown throughout the Championship. The fact that his 96 carries over the 5 matches was the second highest in the tournament’s history says it all. And who is the person who leads this overall carry charts? Himself, following that momentous 2017 effort. Stander always seems to be there – whether it is on the shoulder of his teams to take pass and charge through a defensive line or being in the thick of things keeping opponents out. Ireland will hope he is around for a long time yet.  

Jonathan Sexton 

If you're going to win a Grand Slam, you need your best player to deliver. And Jonathan Sexton did it again and again for Ireland during the tournament. People forget how close Ireland's Grand Slam dream was to ending at the very first hurdle. A spirited France were heading towards a famous victory until, with just seconds to go, Sexton showed his immense temperament and skill by kicking a glorious long distance drop goal to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sexton was consistenly brilliant throughout the tournament, demonstrating the various characteristics that make him one of the modern great fly halves. He will now also hope that he has finally quelled the questions about his physical durability, being a player naturally targeted by opponents due to his importance to the team. The Grand Slam hole in Sexton's CV has now been filled - will the World Cup one soon follow? He could well be for Ireland in Japan what Johnny Wilkinson was for England in their 2003 triumph in Australia. 

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