A BONUS point win against the defending champions? Sounds like the perfect start to another Six Nations championship. And while Ireland weren’t perfect themselves, they did look very convincing and at times, indestructible in what was a dominant performance against Wales on Saturday afternoon. That said, the challenge was a weak one, and this was as poor as their opponents have looked in a long time.
Injuries have torn through the Welsh squad like resignations in Boris Johnson’s inner circle, leaving Wayne Pivac without the experience of eight Lions and their 726 international caps to draw on this year. As far as excuses go, that’s a solid one, but I struggle to picture Ireland, England, or France looking as far away from the level they need to be at if they were to have their first choice XV gutted in similar fashion.
None of this was Ireland’s concern though, and they efficiently took care of the determined but limited Welsh offering. Andy Farrell was the subject of much ire from pundits and fans alike in the first 12 months of his tenure in charge, much of it down to the unattractive brand of rugby his side was playing. I always felt that trying to move on from the Joe Schmidt era would be challenging due to the inevitable hangover that comes from playing such a strict, regimented game plan for so long.
If players have been discouraged from offloading the ball or throwing speculative passes for years, you can’t just flick a switch and expect them to start pulling rabbits out of a hat because there’s a new face at the helm. It takes time to implement change, and it took Andy Farrell a while to do so.
Thankfully, we are now enjoying the fruits of that labour.
We would not have seen tight five forwards throwing passes to one another in and out of contact when Joe Schmidt was in charge. We were treated to an abundance of that on Saturday. In fact, the ease with which every player in green moved the ball around and the number of times we saw forwards linking with backs in open space was the most encouraging aspect of the overall performance. Fostering the confidence it takes for a group of players to do this is a difficult thing to do, and it illustrates the level of self belief there must be in the Irish camp right now.
Generally speaking, supporters in any sport don’t care what style of rugby, football, or anything else their side plays, as long as they’re winning matches. But one thing supporters love more than anything else is seeing their team win in style. Ireland have now arrived at a place where they’re not just winning, they’re doing so while playing attractive rugby. They’re winning in style.
Their evolution since 2019 shares some similarities with France’s journey under Fabien Galthié.
French teams have always had the confidence and belief to be ambitious in attack. Throwing the ball around is as much a part of French rugby DNA as scrummaging is for Georgians and the physicality of the tight game is for South Africans.
What they had in ambition, they lacked in the fundamentals. Their set piece, defence, conditioning, and discipline were not up to the standard required to be competitive in test rugby.
While the flair was there, the basics were not, and on many occasions they cut a sorry sight of a lazy, disjointed and ineffective side.
Under Galthié, there has been a transformation which has been complemented by the Top14 asserting itself as the dominant league in Europe in recent years. France are now a well oiled machine; powerful, fit, aggressive and organised in a way they haven’t been before. Shaun Edwards has taken their defence — previously a massive weak link — and turned it into a potent weapon. Galthié shows little loyalty in his selections and refuses to pick people based on reputation, happy to move people in and out based on current form.
On top of that, they seem to have a Leinster-esque conveyor belt of talent to choose from, as evidenced by what was almost a third string squad travelling to Australia last summer and almost winning the test series.
Ireland have come from a different place. Out of necessity, Irish teams have usually gotten the fundamentals right. Set piece, work rate, discipline and structure have been their bread and butter.
In 2019 and 2020 — before, during, and after the World Cup — Ireland’s primary weak link was their lack of ambition going forward.
They were playing a dull, predictable, and blunt brand of attacking rugby that produced little reward and gave spectators rare opportunity to get excited. The talent was there, but it lacked an edge. In particular, they seemed to be missing some game breaking carriers that could make things happen. Now, in 2022, you could reasonably argue that Ireland has the most dynamic and powerful pack in Europe, and one of the most dynamic packs in the world.
If there were any concerns that CJ’s departure would leave a hole in the back row, both Jack Conan and Caelan Doris have put them to bed. Having two guys that can run at space, break tackles and keep the ball alive like they can is a rarity, and while Josh van der Flier doesn’t have the same physical profile, he brings a different game that makes the 6/7/8 axis a nicely balanced one.
How there were ever any doubts about Tadhg Beirne’s selection, I do not understand. If you have someone that good available, you have to pick him, regardless of whether he’s 120kg or not.
Having him in the second row means you have a fourth back row on the field, but I would go one further and say that having Rónan Kelleher at hooker almost gives you a fifth.
Kelleher was under the microscope when he broke into the Irish set up and there were some question marks about his throwing, which I thought were unfair. Lineout throwing, like scrummaging, is something that evolves over time, and it’s something very few guys nail down fully in the early part of their career. He has consistently gotten better and his throwing is now as good as it needs to be on the international stage.
While his set piece is strong, it’s what he offers around the pitch that makes him stand out. In addition to the usual grunt work, he is busy, physical and has big moments on both sides of the ball. Kelleher and Dan Sheehan, at 24 and 23 years old respectively, are already a lethal combination to have in a match day 23. If they can stay relatively injury free, as is always the caveat for young guys these days (particularly hookers, as I know all too well), we will be seeing both of them lining out in green for many years to come.
There are now eight ball carriers in the Irish pack. When all your forwards can step up and carry the ball well, it takes the pressure off certain individuals and makes the attack less telegraphed, and harder to predict. It forces the defence to pay attention to all the moving parts in front of them, rather than just a few. Throw the ability to pass and offload into the mix — as the Irish forwards have shown they can do — and you have an attacking unit that is very difficult to defend.
This weekend’s game in Paris will be the perfect test of where Ireland are at, and it’s coming at a great time for rugby fans everywhere. It’s not just because France are a strong outfit, it’s because there are so many mouth-watering match ups to look forward to. Kelleher v Marchand, Beirne v Woki, and Conan v Aldritt to name a few up front; Sexton v Ntamack, Aki v Dante and Ringrose v Fickou outside.
Two mobile packs that like to keep the ball alive going at it often produces great contests and with the form both backlines are in, particularly in the back three, we could be in for a real treat.
Regardless of how well organised and seemingly impenetrable your defence is, players like Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack will find the weaknesses and exploit them. There will be mistakes. There will probably be times when the French look like they can do no wrong, buoyed by the roar of most of the 81,000 people and the trumpets in the Stade de France.
I managed to get myself a ticket, so I’ll be making the short journey from Brussels and taking in my first international on French soil. As someone who generally has a disdain for premature hype, I realise I’ve spent most of this column hyping up the Irish team.
But what can I say? It’s hard not to get excited when the signs are so good. I’m backing Ireland by five points, and a man of the match performance from Tadhg Beirne.