Three games in and the Slam is still on.
I know it’s not supposed to be spoken about aloud lest, like a reverse Beetlejuice, it disappear the moment the sound leaves your mouth. But it’ll begin to creep in as the days tick on. It can’t be avoided. Whatever about the shadow war of France and Italy, this victory over Wales signals that grand Irish ambitions this Spring might not be the stuff of pipe dreams after all.
I know the Welsh will be unhappy with the nature of the defeat here but in beating them, Ireland have finally put away a team that have had our collective number over the course of the last few Six Nations. They almost did again here, even with their extensive injury list. The Welsh test is usually one that Ireland fail, so to see a 10 point, try bonus point win against them is a sign that we’re beginning to see a shift in mentality from Joe Schmidt’s side. A side that’s third in the world and wants to act like it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) do “bogey” sides. When Ireland beat the All Blacks in Chicago 2016, it signalled an end to the ceiling of what we have traditionally been conditioned to achieve. Any side that can beat the All Blacks in the manner Ireland did that day, has to be in contention for Six Nations Championships and Slams in March. Wales has been a key tripwire in those aims over the last few years so this result is significant.
The pressure of living up to that growing expectation amongst the fans, media and themselves will be a real killer over the course of the next few weeks but that’s what comes with vaunted aims. The bigger the prize, the bigger the stakes, the bigger the pressure. Handling that collective pressure is a key marker in championship level sides.
We’ll see if Ireland can still call themselves that in a few weeks.
This game against Wales – a 37-27 win sealed properly with the last play of the game – has plenty to praise and critique but the one thing we have to acknowledge is that this performance was a marked improvement on what we’ve seen so far, even with the defensive flubs. This is a serious Welsh side, albeit with flaws that made this try-scoring fiesta a little easier from an Irish perspective. We just haven’t managed to crack the Welsh conundrum over the past few years and, as I wrote last week, I think a lot of that has been down to the physical strength of their back row – in particular, the defensive strength of the likes of Warburton and Faletau.
Ireland excel at the physical confrontation, especially in our starter plays, and normally Wales manage to stuff us there and then blitz hard into our midfield. On Saturday, they couldn’t manage either. They had supreme difficulty getting the ball back of Ireland all day and that lead to long periods of Irish pressure that wore down the Welsh forward resistance. Four Irish players had 10 or more carries and two of those had 15+ and Ireland had 69% possession over the course of both halves. That kind of attrition builds up over time and forces your forwards into a massive defensive effort – to illustrate that, the Welsh locks and flankers racked up 100 tackles between them.
That isn’t anything unusual for Wales, but the quality of the stops just wasn’t there like it has been in the past. Stander, Healy, Leavy and Ryan kept hitting the line with concussive, rhythmic brutality. It would pay off.
That payoff might not have been immediately apparent in a first half where Ireland owned the ball but somehow found themselves 13-5 down after 30 minutes, but all the elements of Ireland’s later try scoring success was there. It just wasn’t sticking. Ireland spilt the ball in contact, lost it on the floor and gave away some silly offensive penalties while Wales seemed to eke maximum value from every possession.
Ireland went the length of the field on one multi-phase move and one turnover later, they were standing under their own posts watching Wales go 10-5 up.
At that point, it might have seemed like one of those games but the basics of a good Irish performance was there. Ireland were making ground, moving the ball around behind the front lines with accuracy and pace, and looked like making the breaks that had proved elusive in our previous encounters against Warren Gatland’s side.
It was a case of “could we make it stick?” as the half wore on and Wales seemed to counter every Irish punch with a dodge and an uppercut of their own.
The first half ended with a powerful Irish rally that finally put together the combination of power and end product to send Bundee Aki crashing over to put some level of respectability on the first half scoreline from an Irish perspective.
If the opening two quarters showcased Wales ability to rope-a-dope, then the third quarter was a stark illustration of Ireland’s power in contact. The third and bonus point fourth try were the perfect blend of invention and brutality.
Some would have you believe that your forwards can’t play well if they aren’t throwing Sonny Bill offloads out the back of every other tackle. When they carry straight and present quick ball like this, it’s just as effective as any offload. For a time, Wales couldn’t live with the physical onslaught, and Ireland raced into a – seemingly – unassailable lead.
Wales would have something to say about that. The most disappointing aspect of this game is that once Ireland went 14 points up, we still had to re-win the game multiple times in the last 20 minutes.
As ill-advised as Gareth Davies talk of looking for a bonus point win was in the build-up, Rob Kearney’s chat about Dan Biggar’s kicking – ‘Everyone has cues. He has a few more cues than other out-halves’ – was arguably worse. Biggar fed Rob platefuls of crow for much of the afternoon as he chased his own kicks with real accuracy.
The second Welsh try came straight from Biggar’s work in the air, and that score made sure that Ireland could not relax heading into the last quarter of this game. It would take a powerful Irish scrum penalty, converted by Conor Murray to ease Ireland out of the range of a Welsh try but even then, we just couldn’t put them away.
Like the Walking Dead, they just kept coming back.
We can maybe look at Conan’s decision to step in on the receiver here, but we were always going to be in trouble on this play given how narrow we were caught off this centre field ruck, which itself came off a restart – an area of the game that troubled us for most of the second half.
These will be the work-ons (I know, I know) over the next two weeks, but the manner of this victory showcased a level of Irish squad depth that is highly encouraging. If we are to accept that this Welsh side are still a serious side, even with their injuries, then we have to also accept that a bonus point win over them is further proof that the talk of Ireland’s lack of attacking style is more myth than reality.
The Wally Ratings: Wales (h)
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. I didn’t rate Sean Cronin, Quinn Roux or Joey Carbery due to being on the pitch for less than 10 minutes. Keiran Marmion didn’t feature.
Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Jack Conan
Fergus McFadden had a relatively decent outing off the bench but looked a little off the pace of the game. He’s been in great form for Leinster but didn’t really get a chance to show in this one.
Jack Conan filled in at #6 when he came on and looked decent for much of his 14 minutes without having a massive impact on either side of the ball.
If you’re a guy like Rob Kearney, you’re probably used to having half of Irish social media calling for your head after every performance that falls below the obviously outstanding. He wasn’t as bad as you’ll hear some describe his performance here, but he was far from his best. I thought he looked a little flat-footed in defence – especially against George North – but he hung on in there;
He used every second of his experience to get a hand to North here, even if he’ll be annoyed at his foot-speed and positioning in the build up.
That said, he had good moments too. His work in the build-up to Earls break shown above, his strong running and his smart holding line before Stockdale’s first try showed all the craft and wile that is his standard.
Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Andrew Porter, John Ryan, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale
I thought the starting pack were outstanding in their carrying and ruck support. Rory Best, Devin Toner and Peter O’Mahony kept the flow of Irish possession running smoothly with some superb rucking, pass support and almost flawless lineout work. James Ryan’s role was to hit hard with the ball up the middle of the pitch and he certainly did that with the kind of punch that Schmidt will have enjoyed. A serious prospect.
Cian Healy and Andrew Porter did really well in the scrum and consistently punished the Welsh defence with some strong carrying. Porter’s performance was really superb, especially when you consider how much Wales would have been looking to target him in the scrum. He stood up to every examination and then some while working incredibly hard in the loose.
Jack McGrath and John Ryan kept the scrummaging standards high when they came off the bench and for me, added a more dominant edge to the Irish scrum.
They played a key role in the winning of the penalty against the head that would stretch the Irish lead to 10 points with the game in the balance.
CJ Stander is Ireland’s go-to sledgehammer. The role that Schmidt demands from Stander is the simplest in description and the hardest in practice. “Get us some go-forward ball in the narrow channels”. It sounds easy, but to do it for 80 minutes is another thing completely. Give him the ball and he’ll get you ground, tie up multiple defenders almost every time and get it back more often than he doesn’t. Those that demand CJ adds offloads to these narrow carries miss the point of the role he’s given in most of the games he plays for Ireland. He’s there to set targets, get the ball back and then go again and at this role, he’s amongst the very best around.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were really good here, as per usual, but in unusual ways. I’ll get to Sexton later, but I really thought that Murray added to his repertoire of Vodafone ad moments by casually stepping up and banging over the killer penalty in the 75th minute.
Is there anything he can’t do? I wouldn’t be surprised to see him announced as driving Elon Musk’s spaceship to Mars in a few years. He’s that good. At everything. Conor Murray is a modern day great of the game and this performance was a further example of that.
Bundee Aki has come in for a bit of criticism in this game but I thought he played a very unselfish game on second- watch. His try showed his close-range power and I thought he was consistently strong in defence while giving Ireland some real grunt in the middle midfield channel, both directly and indirectly. He made a silly error for the first penalty inside two minutes but his crossing penalty looked incredibly harsh. A solid test performer.
Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale were quality, again. Stockdale just can’t stop scoring tries in test matches, which is a nice habit to have all things considered. He’s still just 21 years of age and 13 feet tall in height AND it’s a little intimidating to think how good this lad might end up becoming, to be honest.
Keith Earls just keeps bringing elite performances in whatever he does. Linebreaks, defensive solidity and stuff like this;
He’s the man. I know you know it, but he keeps showing it game after game after game at the highest level.
Johnny Sexton had a weird game. He left 10 points behind him on the tee but was still a dominant character in this game. He stitched Ireland’s attacking performance together with a collection of world-class moments with his passing, tactical kicking and carrying. Almost the complete performance but for his goal kicking, which itself looked down to injury.
Lesser 10s would have withered under the pressure of two handy missed penalties in front of the posts in the first half, but Sexton’s bigger than that; a real warrior.
Chris Farrell, Dan Leavy
These two guys might not have been all that well known to the casual audience before the game, but there aren’t many who don’t know all about them today.
Dan Leavy had a game that announced his arrival on the test stage. What do you want from the openside role that Schmidt wants? You want carrying in the middle channel, you want defensive solidity, you want a barbarian over the ball and a guy who keeps showing up for work every other phase.
That was Dan Leavy in this game but he didn’t just tick boxes, he burned the checklist to cinders. He had one of those games where the ball just kept coming his way on both sides of the ball and he just killed it every time. Every proper test player has a performance that announces their arrival at the top level. CJ had his against the All Blacks, James Ryan had his against France and Dan Leavy had his in this game, against Wales.
Nothing says “I’m Here” like running over Ross Moriarty, of all people, to score under the posts. Superb.
The same could be said about Powerful Chris Farrell. His doubters pre-game were, like the Welsh midfield, knocked back on their asses for 80 minutes by the sheer quality of Farrell’s performance. He caused constant problems for Wales all over the pitch the power, pace and guile of his carrying.
He stepped in at first receiver with ease, he lurked with menace in the second layer behind Sexton and Aki, he carried hard on the gain line, he monstered flankers in contact and he even chased kicks. And people were concerned about this guy? I can only assume that they haven’t been paying attention to this guy’s career in France or Munster. None of what Farrell showed in this game was a surprise.
He defended Wales’ big openside plays with intelligence and strength. This performance had all the quality and assurance of a guy with ten times the number of caps that Farrell has and hinted at the rich potential this 24-year-old man-mountain has.
This performance from Chris Farrell was a loud statement of intent from a guy who took the long way around to test representation but looks all the better for it. Powerful.