Going into this summer of rugby I was really looking forward to having matches to harp on all the way to August but during the week the constant stream of setbacks encountered by the Lions Tour led me to a decision not to feature it anymore, and I now feel justified as there have been even further setbacks since.
So when the tourists racked up a ridiculous 71 points on Saturday, mostly thanks to a senseless red card, I was happy I didn’t have to do a writeup for it and instead I could put all my focus on Ireland’s final test match of the season. We all know how the rugby gods can be cruel right…
In all seriousness, there was nothing about the sending off, the quality of opposition or the margin of victory that was going to take from my enjoyment of this match. A bit like Leinster v Dragons back in mid-June, even with nothing actually riding on the match the fact that fans were back on its own was enough to make the event special.
Yet this had so much more. After all the whinging and complaining from fans about Andy Farrell’s supposed reluctance to offer news caps to promising players that have come through to shine at provincial level, here we not only had a smörgåsbord of debutantes but they came together to show us exactly why they deserved to be there.
So without any further ado let’s crack on with the writeup. Normally I do blow outs like this one try by try but since it was more about the individuals, I’ll go player by player after first looking at the contribution of our opponents.
I pointed out in my Japan writeup last week that I believe it’s very important for rugby to grow in the markets of both of our opponents in this series, and for that to happen, obviously their teams need to do better at test level. Although the Eagles are a good bit behind the Brave Blossoms they did show some promise in the second half against England last week, so they were clearly looking to build on that here.
But while I want to be positive about them, and I can see why they’d want to back themselves with their lineout/maul after their Tiwckenham successes, I also have to be able to criticise and I thought they were absolutely bonkers not to take the three points when winning a central penalty after just 2 minutes.
For their players to be able to see their team ahead on the scoreboard even for a short while would have been amazing and others opportunities were also blown in the first quarter. They also could have levelled the scores at 3-3 after 10 minutes but again went for the corner and again our defence was able to keep them out. By the time Luke Carty was taking a three-point option his side were already 10 points down.
The red card
Reikert Hattingh (54’)
I can actually see what US captain Bryce Campbell is trying to say to the ref in defence of his player here. Hattingh’s challenge on Kelleher definitely met all the modern criteria for a red card, but the Irish hooker received the ball after a forward pass from his 10 so technically arrived at the tackler before he should have done. Thought it interesting that while talking to the US captain the ref said there was no forward pass even though it was he himself who called it! Anyway, still the right call after all was said and done, though a shame for the match as it helped pad the scoreline.
It’s be a bit much to call it a “purple patch” given they were already down by 64-3 at the time, but that said, given they had been down a man for over 20 minutes and looked tired even before the red card, this was quite an achievement especially given our bench was kextra motivated to impress. It took a few goes at penalties kicked to the corner but eventually their sub scrum half Baska was able to sneak it over the line.
15 HUGO KEENAN
Remember all the talk about who was ever going to replace Brian O’Driscoll? Well all that time we never really thought to debate about Rob Kearney’s successor as Ireland’s Mr Dependable in the 15 jersey. And to be honest, if we did discuss that a couple of years ago NOBODY would have mentioned Hugo Keenan, yet here he is playing there for the gagillionth time in a row and nobody is batting an eyelid as he has made it his own with his phenomenal skill set and awareness.
I don’t want to take anything away from Stu McCloskey but I wonder if he actually meant his chip through to fall for his own player rather than go to touch but still Keenan’s pace got him there and he bagged a try for himself as the game ticked into the final quarter.
14 ROBERT BALOUCOUNE
It was an error from USA winger Mika Kruse, where he thought he could stop a clearing Carbery kick from finding touch but ended up giving Ireland the throw, which led to Baloucoune’s chance to introduce himself to the world stage.
He picked it up from his out half around halfway and there was only one thing on his mind. After first accelerating through a group of forwards he was suddenly in the backfield where he was able to stop, step, accelerate and repeat his way to the line like he was back in sevens rugby. Certainly couldn’t have had a better way to show exactly why he deserves his shot in the Irish setup that’s for sure.
13 JAMES HUME
Absolutely earned his shot in green and absolutely did a good job with it. Didn’t hurt to have his provincial team mate alongside him in the centre and they combined well throughout, though James had a few good individual contributions as well. Like so many who got their chance on the day, this lad has many above him in the queue but I very much doubt this will be his last ever cap.
12 STUART McCLOSKEY
You’ve heard of an Ulster fry? Well this was an Ulster try. McCloskey picked it up in his own half and worked it well with Hume who had Addison in support to bring it well into American territory. He shipped it out wide to Baloucone on the touchline who had McCloskey inside him and found him with a clever offload in the tackle and there was no stopping the big man from there.
My take on Stu is that I get that he doesn’t want to be known as just the big boshing beast of a 12 and to be fair he has shown several other sides to his game. However, I don’t think he should stray too far from the talents that got him where he is because he’s damn good at it and he definitely has more caps in his future.
11 ANDREW CONWAY
Took a lot of stick for not offloading on one of his breaks but I reckon that’s harsh. You want your wingers to be greedy. Linked up with Coombes extremely well more than once and his darts up the line put us in good positions. But also, we already know what this guy can do and he should definitely be high up the back three selection ladder as he can also slot in well at 15 when needed. Unfortunate to go off for HIA and Addison’s impressive second half will have put him back in the mix.
10 JOEY CARBERY
For me the plethora of paduans was only the sub plot to this match and in fact this series. It was always really about Carbery. Maybe Sexton’s omission was for rest, maybe it was enforced, and for a while we thought it was in case Warren came a-calling, but whatever the reason, it meant after a long time on the sidelines Joey could be the alpha 10 in camp and that was important for everyone involved.
I don’t think he really hit his straps against Japan but here it was his offload in the tackle to Conway that brought our offence to life after a shaky start and with a strong carrying pack to help bring us forward to the 22, he was able to get us off the mark with a penalty that was to be the first of his five successful placekicks on the day. Not everything clicked for him but he did look settled and he was substituted at the same time as the red card was shown so it was overall a great outing for his confidence for sure.
9 CRAIG CASEY
In my preview I addressed my thoughts on all the controversy surrounding Craig’s brief cameo against Japan, and he wasted no time in showing what he can do in this match after the USA kicked off and he dispatched a superb exit box kick to touch in the Eagles half.
Considering this was a starting XV that was always going to be doing a lot of strong carries Ireland badly needed a nine that was going to both get to the breakdown and distribute quickly and the young Munster lad did just that throughout and had a fine 60 minute shift.
1 DAVE KILCOYNE
Looking more and more like he could surpass Church as Ireland’s number one number one although this was by his standards a quiet enough outing as the team was over stacked with ball carriers so Dave’s chances to impress were limited, although we didn’t really need him to impress in fairness.
2 RÓNAN KELLEHER
Struggled to click with his skipper in early lineouts here but once they did we got our first two tries. Baloucoune’s mazy sprint got one and the second was more straightforward as Kelleher got on the end of a maul which had a penalty advantage and rumbled over the line.
The thing about Rónan is that while you have to always acknowledge the build up to a try before crediting the scorer, when a guy seems to have a knack for often being the one dotting down there must be something about him so his callup to the Lions came as no surprise. This score started “in Munster” with more Coombes/Conway telepathy before the winger dinked to himself up the touchline and offloaded to Keenan who jinked his was into the 22 and found his hooker in perfect support. This try after half an hour was actually the final score of the first half which ended 31-3.
Yet another penalty led to yet another lineout that led to yet another take by James Ryan that led to yet another Rónan Kelleher try. Had to peel off and force his way over this time but still made it look easy.
Actually one close lineout worked between Ryan and Kelleher didn’t work as they were done from crossing, but straight after the red card they went to it again and this time the hooker was extra determined to get over and spun his way to number four. In fairness it wasn’t just the tries that earned him player of the match, he was very influential in the loose throughout as well.
3 TOM O’TOOLE
However locked down the top two positions might be in the Irish tight head pecking order this weather, Tom’s debut did his chances absolutely no harm at all. Where he impressed most of all was in link play. I know when I was a prop back in the day I was nowhere to be found when the backs were running and offloading their way up the field but on several occasions O’Toole was heavily involved.
4 RYAN BAIRD
There were a few names in the Ireland selection that actually looked like they’d been around at this level far longer than reality and Ryan definitely has that look about him. Made himself a pest on USA’s lineout throws, bashed into their tacklers on a few of his trademark rampaging runs, and it’s too shabby putting the ball through the hands on occasion either. Really looking forward to a full season of him & James in both blue and green.
5 JAMES RYAN (CAPT)
Only thing holding him back right now IMO is coming to terms with the captaincy, although his progression throughout this match impressed me. His timing was off on a couple of early darts so right before our opening try he called it to himself from the 2 position and that helped him settle. From then on the catches kept sticking and the bulk of his hooker’s haul came from them.
6 CAELAN DORIS
Thwarted both early US threats by first swatting down their lineout throw then jackling a clearing penalty as they pummeled our try line. Might earn himself some slagging along the lines of “who do you think you are, Tom Brady?” for knocking on in the tackle more than once (also towards the end of the Japan match) but in fairness a lot of that was good defensive tackling and overall he has shown himself to be a great fit for Ireland’s back row.
7 NICK TIMONEY
Kelleher might have had five tries had Timoney not (rightly) backed himself on a maul minutes shortly after a situation similar to the hooker’s first. Again a lineout 5m out, again a penalty advantage, but this time it was the Ulster flanker getting it down. He had a great outing overall though he seems better suited for number 8 and with no disrespect meant to him I’m not sure how far up the pecking order he’s going to climb in this Irish set up.
8 GAVIN COOMBES
How could you not give someone who bagged four tries player of the match? Well, you could at least make an argument for Coombes because long before his thoroughly deserved try (finished with sheer determination after being denied by the TMO moments before) he was playing a part in the build up for several other scores with his effortless offloading for gains, in fact I’d go so far as to award him an assist for Timoney’s as it was his flip to Conway in his own 22 that got us the length of the pitch for the score.
We already knew what this guy could do after a stellar campaign for Munster but on Saturday he showed how the step up to the Irish camp doesn't phase him and although we already have tons of back row talent already, if there was one that could break through it’s this guy.
16 DAVE HEFFERNAN
17 ED BYRNE
18 FINLAY BEALHAM
19 FINEEN WYCHERLEY
20 PAUL BOYLE
I’m going to take all the sub forwards collectively as my opinion on them all is pretty much the same. The front rowers had all been capped before yet as a group they all slotted in really well to the determined Irish effort. Bealham was in the right place at the right time to follow up on his provincial team-mate being unlucky right at the death.
21 CAOLIN BLADE
Like I say, he was unlucky not to get a try at the end but at least he provided me with a twitter pun I have been waiting to use ever since he first played at senior level. A great scrum half that earned his shot although as I’ve said about several others from this match, would do well to surpass those above him.
22 HARRY BYRNE
Did some really good things, like a kick pass to Addison, some strong accurate distribution plus some heavy carries, and also did some not so good things like a missed conversion and an over cooked punt to touch in the corner. Overall a great experience for him having been in camp for the duration and hopefully he gets more game time in blue over the coming season as with more rugby under his belt there could be no limit to what he can achieve.
23 WILL ADDISON
Have a feeling if he had started he would have been player of the match, such was his attitude. And who could blame him, he has had a horrendous run of injuries and as delighted as he may have been to see so many from his province making their test debuts he seemed to make it his mission not to be forgotten and he definitely succeeded. Fitting that his conversion brought the match and season to an end.
Technically Saturday’s match brings to an end for Ireland a campaign which goes back to the end of October, when we went to Paris with a shot at the 2020 Six Nations title. Yes, that fell flat. Then yes, we got bested by England for a second time. Then yes, we lost our first two matches in the 2021 Six Nations. That’s way too much falling short for many people’s liking and I get that.
But hang on...we still managed top three finishes in both Six Nations and the Autumn Nations Cup and that’s certainly not nothing, especially when it comes to prize money. Then we had this mini series which stretched our winning streak to five - you can question the opposition if you must but there is still a decent win over England in there and when you factor in the amount of new caps plus how they played, I think it’s fair to say the glass it at very least half full.
Next season will bring a lot of pressure to bear on Andy Farrell & co when it comes to results, and I’m not sure finishing third will cut it any more if his goal is to bring us to our holy grail in 2023. But for now, I’m happy about the way things our going - we seem to have several really good options at every position and hopefully there will be full houses of fans there to watch them next season. JLP