Monday, February 07, 2022



It was the 57th minute when a straightforward enough pass to Liam "Sanjay" Williams went to ground, and as if this didn't sum up enough how things had gone for the Welsh so far on this day, the penalty Ireland won at the ensuing scrum definitely did.

Then Johnny Sexton plants an absolute beauty of a kick right into the corner, and what happened next also summed up the kind of day Ireland had been having, although this wasn't a good thing as Caelan Doris got his positioning wrong at the lineout handing the visitors a chance to clear by way of a (albeit very rare) penalty against us.
We were pushing for the bonus point at this stage, and with our visits to the 22 not always guaranteeing scores despite dominating territory and possession, plus the fact that the Josh Adams sin bin was close to expiring, we would be putting a lot of pressure on our bench if we didn't get that fourth try soon.

But one of the top areas where the Welsh had been struggling was the lineout and although they won this one around the 22, it wasn't clean and a phase or two later Andrew Porter was able to reach into the arms of a carrier and strip the ball free much easier than I'm sure Wayne Pivac and co would have liked; all of a sudden we had another chance to strike, and with the confusion of broken play plus the extra man, this was the time to make it count.

As you can see by the (very crude I know, apols) screengrab, the Irish backline instantly knew what to do.  Here you see Mack Hansen on his first cap immediately arriving off his wing to get involved while Garry Ringrose is already calling for it to end up with him.

Hansen takes it, then fixed a defender or two, before Bundee Aki gets it to do a bit more, and finally it reaches Garry.  He could have easily done likewise by sending it on to Andrew Conway who was on a hat-trick in that very corner, but almost as if he wanted to remind everyone who had been debating the green 13 jersey that it was still his, he was of only one mind and surged past the efforts of Tompkins and Sanjay (neither exactly slouches) to get it over the line and clinching our maximum point haul.

This was easily the best try of our four from a spectator's point of view, but like I said it was also crucial from a Six Nations point of view. I'll let the Welsh writers do the deep dive analysis on what was happening on their side of things, but the fact remains that right from the opening exchanges they were very much there for the taking, and that it took us to the end of the third quarter with an extra man to make the most of that advantage shows we do have areas we need to work on, not always the worst state of affairs for your mindset as you're heading into a week's lead in to Paris.

So let's go back to the kickoff and see how things progressed through the match shall we

FIRST QUARTER - Arrival of the Mack

All throughout the week leading up to this match the talk was about how Ireland were clear favourites even going up against the reigning champions. This was based on form plus a series of injuries in Wayne Pivac's squad.

Still, we've been here more that once only to fall short on the day, especially against this particular opposition, so it was really important that we got off to a good start. Dan Biggar had the honour of getting things underway and immediately it was clear how precious possession was to them on the day as he put the kickoff short enough for chasers to have a go, only they knocked it on.

From this early scrum we set to establish our standard game from the set piece, letting Bundee Aki do the crash ball running but when Sexton tried to jab one forward into the Welsh half it was blocked by the onrushing Welsh tacklers.

In last week's writeup of Leinster's narrow defeat in Cardiff I kept harping on how the home side were getting the bounce of the rugby ball - well after this block, fortunes went the other way as it went straight to an Irish jersey. But it's one thing getting some luck, it's another doing something with it, and said jersey was being worn for the first time by Mr Mack Hansen.

Not unlike James Lowe who's place he was taking from the November successes, Mack went the direct route and his kick ahead stopped perfectly in the Welsh 22 and they could only bring it into touch giving us an attacking lineout in only the second minute.

From here, we kept things very simple again with a dart to Tadhg Beirne, heavy lifting through the forwards up the middle, before shipping it back out wide to the original wing where Hansen got involved yet again by sending an excellent looping pass into the path of Bundee and hey presto we were on the board.

The winds around Dublin had been strong all day and not always in the same direction, so for Sexton to knock over the conversion from the touchline like it was nothing to him says a lot, plus on an attack a few minutes later he launched a high ball from around halfway that landed on a sixpence outside the 22, putting Liam Williams under pressure before Porter jackled a penalty in a central enough position.

Now I know the conventional wisdom is to "take the three" more often than not, especially at Six Nations level, but we had already been doing so well on both sides of the ball at this early stage that I'd have been in favour of going for the jugular. But for this place kick and one a few minutes later, Sexton wasn't able to allow for the wind enough to stop his efforts from fading wide.

Thankfully for us we continued to have the upper hand until a series of phases got us back into the 22 (although I did think officials missed a knock on from JGP) an offside call gave Sexton the chance to make it third time lucky from right in front which he did, giving us a very much deserved two score lead at the end of the quarter.

SECOND QUARTER - Welsh "purple patch"

It was also third time lucky for the Welsh as Biggar persisted with the short restarts and here they managed to get it back, which marked the beginning of a spell However while this qualifies as the champions' best spell of the match , they still didn't really threaten much with the ball.

At one point Tadhg Beirne's strength forced a choke tackle with some help from Sexton, then our line speed was also forcing them into knock ons and forward passes, with the only thing keeping them down our end was our own mistakes, like a rare misfire from Gibson-Park that went off Bundee Aki's knee.

Once we finally escaped we still couldn't quite make possession work, with one 15-phase set right at the end of the half looking promising until JGP's final ball to Hansen was just a smidge too high and it went to touch. As you can see below from my halftime tweet, I was more than a bit concerned about our ability to get the four tries that really seemed to be there for us.

THIRD QUARTER - Guilty Adams

All the talk of the Welsh starting XV concerned Josh Adams at 13. For me it didn't sound all that radical once it can be shown that they had a specific role in mind, and moves like this have worked before for Wales with George North and even once for Leinster with Ross Byrne.

Yet talented a player as Adams clearly is, on Saturday he generally seemed to be attracting attention for the wrong reasons, like moments into the second half when he was pinged for offside at halfway, allowing us another early chance to get points on the board.

And when the Welsh pack dragged down our maul allowing us another lineout even closer out, again we went to Tadhg Beirne before proceeding to stretch their defence, only this time the space was to be found out on the other wing and we quickly sent it out to Andrew Conway who just about managed to stretch out and roll it to disturb the whitewash.

From here it looked like Sexton had an impossible task dealing with the wind with his right boot from the "wrong" touchline no matter what had gone before, yet he proceeded to launch what I can only describe as the best "dead duck" style place kick I have ever seen.

No doubt 17-0 looked a hell of a lot better to Irish fans, but we still had to look for more, yet when Sexton lost the ball in possession at midfield and the Welsh had a penalty advantage for a high tackle, they rightly chose to chip one over the top (not sure why they didn't try this more often TBH) only for it to fall between Adams and Sexton and it looked to all intents and purposes that Wales would finally get some game time in our 22 from this.

Even when I watched them crash into each other live, I didn't see anything wrong as it looked like both were going for the ball. But each time you look at a replay it looks worse from the Welshman. The ball looks like the last thing on his mind as he hits the Irish skipper, and you can definitely make a case that the first connection is with the head.

But after reviewing it the officials decided that while they agreed it was foul play, the contact started below the head which meant Adams only saw yellow. And I wonder is it cheeky to suggest that this verdict maybe suited Sexton and Ireland a bit, because had it been judged to be on the head he'd have had to go off for an HIA?

Either way the ruling could not have been more pivotal for Ireland's hopes of getting to four tries (felt like karma getting involved after the "chicken wing" incident cost us last year). All of a sudden from a Welsh penalty heading towards our line, now we're going the other way and with an extra man and straight from the lineout, a series of phases including what is by now a trademark JVDF crash ball (maybe that "He's worked on his carrying" trope is starting to get old?) set us up for JGP to do what he does best finding that final pass which Conway gratefully received to finish his second try. And just to show the capacity Aviva crowd that the last conversion from out wide wasn't a fluke, skipper Sexton only went and popped another one over to make it 24-0.

Other than the Ringrose try which I already described, the only significant event left in this quarter was a penalty we shipped in the 53rd minute. What made it so special was that it was the first we conceded all day. Now while I do sport my green goggles for these writeups and I know how much teams try to work on their discipline, even I have to admit that this isn't a good look for the officials and I'd be surprised if a no-no or two wasn't missed up to this point (for example, how Porter's elbow managed to avoid hitting the ground at scrum time seemed to defy physics).

FOURTH QUARTER - Finishing on a 'meh'

Grand Slams are a rarity these days which means points differential can be crucial when it comes to the destination of the Championship. So while it was great to see Sexton going off around 63 minutes for Carbery with the BP in the bag, given the kind of day the Welsh were having we really would have wanted our bench to crack on and pad the scoreline a bit more like our Under 20s had done the night before down in Cork.

Sadly our "finishers" weren't able to find the right levels of cohesion, with a knock on here, an accidental offside there, a kick going over the dead ball line to be called back for a scrum elsewhere, and to top it all we literally handed our guests a score when Tadgh Beirne, who overall was outstanding it must be said, did one offload too many allowing Taine Basham, probably their best player on the day even if he still didn't out perform his opposite number, to intercept and claw back a late 7 points.

I don't want to be too harsh on our bench, because O'Mahony announced his arrival with a jackled penalty and Conor Murray made up for an early spill with some impressive carries; it's just that while we got away without any scores in quarters 2 and 4 here, I'm not so sure that will help us to a winning position in the Stade de France.


Like I said earlier, to open a tournament with a BP win with still stuff to work on is not the worst way to have things, especially when that tournament is the Six Nations that doesn't allow for warmup matches. And of course I have fingers, toes and eyes all crossed as I type this next bit before an injury report comes out - it looks like we may have a full deck to choose from going to Paris which would be brilliant.

(UPDATE - best wishes of course to Rob & Keith but overall it has to be said the squad availability doesn't look too bad at all...)

At times though we did manage to recreate our November levels of form so once that can be improved upon things do definitely look good for us. What I'd say is needed most for Andy & co is for the team to be managed properly through a week which no doubt will consist of a bout of mutual admiration through the media.

When it comes to individuals there were fine contributions right throughout the starting XV - there were some who had an issue with Mack Hansen being Player of the Match but while I agree the decision wasn't straightforward, there was still a strong case for him. And besides, it's not about awards it's how they play together.

One name I don't see mentioned at all in the ruggersphere is James Ryan, who might not have been our top performer yet still showed up strong when we needed him whether it was dominating lineouts or powerful carries up the middle. Also I don't think I have mentioned Tadhg Furlong so far, probably more because we take his amazing plays for granted, including the finesse passes.

So onwards we go to the French capital - they seem to have had a similar time of it against the Italians on Sunday in that they got the five points without fully hitting their straps so I guess that means we'll just have to get our preparation right and make sure we're ready to meet them head on. And I don't see much evidence from this particular batch of Irish players that it's beyond us, that's for sure.

There's a busy week ahead here at Harpin Manor with Leinster hosting Edinburgh on Friday before the big test match on Saturday, which means many of our usual features will have double doses. Still just the one podcast though, where we will of course be talking about how Ireland are doing but I'll also have on an Embra fan to harp on some URC, although I'm sure he'll have a thing or six to say about Murrayfield too!

As always stay tuned to this page to keep up with it all and be sure to get involved in the conversation on social media. JLP



Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019