“There's something about his body language that just exudes confidence - 'I have the ball now and I'm going to make something happen' - and once the early cobwebs were brushed off he was able to back up that swagger to play a large part in his new team bagging a very handy five league points.”
It would make my chosen title work a lot better if James Lowe had made his Leinster debut just a couple of days earlier than December 2, but since his project player spell had already begun at that stage, I’m going to leave it as it is. Besides, the fact that he was here and training with the province in November is kind of the point anyway.
Because it’s not just his talent that makes him a great addition to any squad, it’s his overall attitude which can’t help but spread throughout a dressing room and it was apparent right from the kickoff in this inaugural Autumn Nations Cup fixture on Friday night.
Yes, I know Caelan Doris was awarded Player of the Match, and rightly so. And he features heavily in my opening description of the action from the game, which covers the final 8 minutes or so as I reckon that spell was a perfect microcosm of the match as a whole.
It starts with a bout of kick tennis at midfield, one that Ireland “wins” thanks to a perfect punt from Lowe which sat up just short of the Welsh tryline, the second such contribution from him in this half. The visitors managed to earn a penalty to get out of their own 22, but from this lineout our defence, which had been organised and stingy throughout thanks to starters and replacements alike, kept them from making any gain until eventually Tadhg Beirne jackled a penalty for us.
We were going for a try to end the match and although we had our third out half of the evening, our varied attack patterns were moving us up the pitch really well until we fell short once 10m from the try line - this is how it had gone pretty much the entire match. But as the Welsh tried to escape, their forwards were pinged for the umpteeth time for sealing off, a particularly unforgivable sin given we were keeping our numbers low at the breakdown.
And so we chose to take a scrum, where we had been having great success from the start, mostly on Andrew Porter’s side but on this occasion we won another one with Finlay Bealham and opted to go once more.
With the Welsh probably expecting us to keep it in and go for the penalty try, Doris instead popped up from the base and his strong run and offload provided James Lowe with his maiden test try on his maiden test start. And it was far from an easy finish either - he got it over with sheer will as he has done many times for Leinster.
Like I said, this spell had pretty much everything the match had for the 80 minutes. Ireland dominating at set pieces and able to advance the ball well. Wales a mere shadow of their very recent Grand Slam/RWC SF/World #1 selves despite having a host of proven talent on the pitch. And with Doris leading the way among the forwards doing the heavy lifting, Lowe led the way in making it count.
Of course those weren’t the only two who impressed for Ireland but before I get to the rest of the match, we have to expand on the Welsh performance a bit. I know their recent results have been poor but like I said in my preview, I really thought they’d offer lot more that they did on the night. But sadly they didn’t and it left me thinking we should look at this result in the same light as we did the recent win over Italy coming as it did 7 days before a much more challenging away date.
As for their coach Wayne Pivac, I sincerely hope there’s no knee jerk reaction over his job. It has been a crazy year and unless there’s an absolute revolution among the players he should surely be given more time to turn things around and bed in the new players he’s bringing into the set up. One thing is for sure - rivals or no, I got no pleasure from watching them perform as they did.
But back on our side of the ball, as the saying goes “you can only play what’s in front of you” so let’s see how that went from the kick off. The first five minutes of James Lowe’s test career actually went in a similar fashion to those from his Leinster one, with good intentions leading to unfortunate outcomes.
Having made a good catch from a box kick in the opening minute he was isolated allowing Shane Lewis-Hughes to jackal an early penalty, and shortly after when Johnny Sexton worked his backline magic and tore through a gap, Lowe just failed to hold on to the offload.
And as he was falling towards the ground he was helped on his way by Liam “Sanjay” Williams - this led to a bout of “handbags” between the two players to match an earlier scuffle between Peter O’Mahony and Alun Wyn Jones and I thought this might continue throughout the match but what really set the stage was the first scrum penalty.
It’s not an area where Ireland has enjoyed much domination in recent years, and it looked as though we weren’t quite sure how to get the most out of it until the very end. Still, given Tadhg Furlong is still out of the picture for now, it was good to see and this first call from ref Mathieu Raynal put us on the board.
But even though we continued to impress with the ball, those last few yards were proving to be a challenge. I actually think the Welsh were better defensively than their own fans have been suggesting, although on our side I couldn’t understand why we had so much confidence flinging higher risk passes at midfield while retreating into our shell to resort to pick and goes once in sight of a score. Perhaps with a bit more adventure the try bonus could, nay should, have been secured.
In the midst of this the Welsh actually managed to pull level with a Leigh Halfpenny penalty on 17 minutes and at the time I was concerned that this trend would continue - if we didn’t capitalise on a try-scoring chance soon to build a lead it could well cost us in the closing stages.
Luckily for us our opponents kept conceding needless penalties, and ironically our first try came from a 5m scrum at which we struggled a bit. Jamison Gibson-Park, who’s distribution throughout was key to our many marches up the pitch, had to work hard to retain possession and from here the pick and go worked for us and it was Quinn Roux, an 11th hour starter in place of Iain Henderson, who got it over.
This was just what we needed to settle us down and a booming exit clearance from Lowe, a lineout steal from Roux at halfway and a great chase through of a Sexton grubber by JG and Henshaw later, we had ourselves another penalty, which our skipper proceeded to slot to stretch our lead to 10.
As he kicked however, he seemed to pull a hamstring which forced him off the pitch. Suddenly the Ireland setup wasn’t too far off that I was calling for after the match in Paris - Stockdale was another late withdrawal providing us with my personal back three of choice and now Sexton was no longer captain, although ideally I would of course rather he was actually on the pitch for us.
Now it was an opportunity for Billy Burns to step up to test rugby. My view of his inclusion is the same as that for anyone in the squad - once they qualify and they show they are good enough for their province, they deserve a shot at this level and I was delighted to see him get his chance. And to be fair our backs continued pretty much in the same vein as before with him involved, and we came very close to another try before the break.
But despite all the dominance, our lead was still “only” ten, and if you could describe a portion of the Welsh offering as a “purple patch”, it would be after half time when they actually narrowed the margin to 7 and it could have gotten smaller had Leigh Halfpenny not proven himself human from the kicking tee a couple of times.
What we needed was a spark to get us back to where we were and after a good chase following a restart, Caelan Doris blocked down Gareth Davies’ exit clearance after which Cian Healy was held up over the line. This didn’t stop us from keeping the Welsh pinned down at that end of the pitch and eventually an offside call allowed Burns to restore our advantage.
The bulk of Ireland's success was coming from our defence, and hopefully this will be our biggest takeaway ahead of next week. We were very smart with our decisions around the breakdown making it very difficult for the Welsh to get anything going.
And with 15 minutes left on the clock, it was Burns’ turn to retire early with an HIA meaning Plan C, namely Conor, going to the playmaker role. To be fair he did pretty well from there for the remainder of the match, although the more telling contributions were his three placekicks that helped us achieve a final score that truly reflected how the match had gone.
Come the full time whistle I was delighted for Lowe to have gotten his first try but even without it I was determined to be positive about our display. Even though the lineup was stronger than many of us expected, we must still remember that this is pretty much a glorified friendly series of matches where style of play and development of a wider squad are just as important as scores on the board. And in these areas I reckon we got very high marks on Friday.
Unfortunately we must go to Twickers without both Sexton and Henshaw, but however great the challenge I’ll want to at least see us make a decent effort to meet it. If we play exactly the same as we did on Friday I’m not altogether sure we’ll come away with much. But the hope is that this “Leinster/Saracens” and “Ireland/England” narrative from recent years will prey enough on the minds of all involved with our set up that we can focus on bringing the right levels of physicality.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy this win for what it was and if our first 80 minutes of James Lowe in a green jersey is a sign of what’s to come, on top of the other names Andy Farrell has already elevated in his short tenure with more still to come, then there’s a lot to look forward to. JLP