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Brent Pope: 'Joe can rest easier after much better show'

Ireland on top of the world but focus all on Japan now


SUPERB: Bundee Aki takes on the Welsh defence. Photo: SPORTSFILE

SUPERB: Bundee Aki takes on the Welsh defence. Photo: SPORTSFILE

SUPERB: Bundee Aki takes on the Welsh defence. Photo: SPORTSFILE

So Ireland stand on top of the rugby world today following a morale boasting 19-10 win over Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

In Joe Schmidt's and captain Rory Best's last home match, the Irish produced their best performance in months to bring some of the feel-good factor back for the World Cup in Japan.

Sport can be very fickle. A few weeks ago in the aftermath of Ireland's embarrassing capitulation to England in Twickenham, Irish rugby supporters were considering whether or not they would even bother to travel to Japan.

Now, Ireland are officially the best rugby team in the world, if you are to believe the ranking system.


However, for parts of Saturday's game Ireland again looked capable of beating any team on their day. Schmidt won't be getting carried away but can be pretty positive about his team's response.

At last, after a pretty mixed series of warm-up matches, Ireland are on the upward trajectory and it is Warren Gatland men who look a different team to the team that beat England.

It was not a perfect performance, and Ireland still had a few shaky moments in the lineout, but they played with plenty of passion and physicality. When big Tadgh Furlong crashed over early in the second half, he punched the air in jubilation. It signalled a change in body language for the whole team.

This was a team that looked at ease with each other, and their direction of play was helped immeasurably by the leadership and experience of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, who both came through the match unscathed.

Every time Sexton went down, the crowd collectively held its breath. The world's best out half in 2018 is vital to Ireland's hopes in Japan.

There were a few areas of concern, especially in the first half when Ireland could hardly get their hands on the ball. Despite being three points in arrears at the break, this Irish side always seem to have the measure of the Welsh.

Ireland's defence in the first half was for the most part very good, helped by heroics of Robbie Henshaw and veteran fullback Rob Kearney. In fact, the Irish fullback had another tremendous game, always safe under the high ball, covering the field to deny Dan Biggar an intercept try and then scoring one himself in the first half.

Other standout performers in the Irish backline included centre Bundee Aki who was like a human pinball, bounding through tackles and always making the ever-precious grainline with ball in hand.

If the Irish the team was playing Scotland tomorrow then Aki would have to start. His form is irrepressible at the moment.

Best game

The Sexton and Murray combo will gel better with another outing but both showed touches of their old selves.

In the pack, flanker CJ Stander had his best game in a while while Jack Conan and Josh van de Flier were also impressive, the latter using his dynamic speed on numerous occasions to cause the Welsh headaches.

Possibly the world's best second row, James Ryan again walked away with the Man of the Match award, just nudging past Aki. What an amazing player the 23-year-old is. The game just seems to come naturally to the 6ft 8in colossus.

Ryan is intelligent, mobile and teak tough - and still with plenty of years to develop. On Saturday afternoon it seemed that every maul turnover or ripped ball was someway attributed to the big second row.

The jury is still out on his partner Jean Kleyn, who needed a huge game against Wales to silence critics around his selection over Devin Toner.

Skipper Best received a deserved standing ovation when he was replaced, and was just reward for an extremely classy player. How times have changed in Irish rugby since Best first started 14 years ago, he now departs the Aviva stage leading the No 1 ranked side into the next World Cup.

Best's trophy cabinet will contain wins over the All Blacks, Grand Slams and Triple Crowns and he can now take his place as one of Ireland's rugby greats.

Ireland can look forward to taking on Scotland in two weeks in what will be a crucial pool game. If they can display the same aggression, intent and physicality and add a touch more creative play, then a place in last four is still achievable.