Do believe the hype. Yesterday’s victory over Scotland provided the most persuasive evidence yet that Ireland really can win the World Cup.
Last month’s performance against France might have been more fluent and exciting. But the latest triumph displayed the strength in depth and ability to overcome adversity which will be necessary to conquer the toughest tournament of all.
Even a planner as meticulous as Andy Farrell hardly expected the Murrayfield showdown to feature Josh van der Flier throwing the ball into the lineout and Cian Healy playing hooker.
Yet after Ireland lost three forwards to injury in the first 24 minutes things took a surreal turn when substitute hooker Rónan Kelleher was first hampered and then forced off by an injury early in the second half.
Van der Flier was deputed to fill the poacher-turned-gamekeeper role out of touch. Healy, like a left-wing TD seeking a State car, abandoned his usual position and moved to the centre. Scotland, just a point down with half an hour left, briefly sensed a golden opportunity. Instead, Ireland turned the screw remorselessly from there on in.
An odd slip notwithstanding, the visiting lineout actually functioned slightly better than the home one. Ireland’s all-prop front-row thrived to such an extent Healy may wonder if he missed his vocation.
This ability to adjust in the face of pressure distinguishes Farrell’s Ireland from Ireland under his predecessor. In the Joe Schmidt era the team became extremely vulnerable if even a couple of key players were missing.
Disastrous consequences ensued at the World Cup where unaccustomed physical demands place a premium on squad strength.
This year’s Six Nations campaign has seen Ireland cope with absences all the way through. Tadhg Furlong made just his first start of the championship while Farrell has also been without Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw who saw their first action off the bench yesterday.
With Tadhg Beirne having suffered a championship-ending injury against France, half an hour into this game Ireland were short six of their best 15. At hooker and lock, the second choices were also missing.
The green juggernaut ploughed on regardless. It was helped greatly in doing so by three players whose flourishing in the Irish jersey is a tribute to Farrell’s patience, intelligence and faith in his own judgment.
As Ireland struggled during Farrell’s early games in charge, no one struggled more than James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park. That was just two years ago. It feels like an aeon.
The subsequent renaissance of both players was gloriously illustrated four minutes from time when they combined for an exhilarating breakout which almost secured a bonus-point try.
Lowe’s arrival onto the international scene had been awaited with such excitement his early troubles felt like a massive let-down. The immensity of his talent coupled with the experience of starring in so many processions for Leinster perhaps lured him into a false sense of security.
His performances since are an object lesson in self-improvement. The winger isn’t just playing like a different man, he looks a different man. His very bearing on the field has changed and there’s a huge sharpness about everything he does. A fine first-half tackle on Stuart Hogg epitomised his defensive improvement.
Yet this new rigour has not diminished the old exuberance and sense of adventure. Whether tearing past the Scottish cover in the 33rd minute or outstripping opposite number Kyle Steyn before putting in a defence-torturing kick on the hour, Lowe in full flight is one of the great joys of Irish sport.
Gibson-Park’s elevation to first-choice scrum-half, past long-time fixture Conor Murray and the Munster man’s putative heir Craig Casey, was initially controversial but he’s grown magnificently into the role. It took less than a Murrayfield minute for the Leinster man to prove Ireland are better with him at No 9.
There’d been nothing wrong with Murray’s box-kicking. But there’d been nothing as spectacularly right as the hanging delivery Gibson-Park put up for Mack Hansen to win inside the Scottish ’22 after 56 minutes. One minute later, the scrum-half was popping up a pass for Lowe to touch down in the corner. Game effectively over.
Lowe was viewed as a potential international star from the day he landed in Ireland. Hansen not so much, or he wouldn’t have ended up with Connacht. No one has more spectacularly justified Farrell’s faith than the dark horse from out of the west.
His 27th-minute try, created by a superb pass by that other great exceeder of initial expectations Hugo Keenan, was a masterclass in fearless finishing. It was just one highlight of a performance which resembled an experiment into just how centrally involved a wing can be.
There was that fine fetch from the Gibson-Park kick, a couple of excellent turnovers at rucks and the moment in the 62nd minute when he shimmied one way and passed the other to put in Jack Conan for Ireland’s third try. Hansen is the hardest-working winger in the rugby business. He’s a gem.
This game evoked memories of one from 20 years ago this month. Back then Ireland were the up and comers with Triple Crown hopes who hosted the world’s No 1-ranked team. We buzzed and flew around energetically for a while.
Then England ground us down and delivered a chastening lesson about the vast distance between promise and achievement.
Seven months later that England team won the World Cup. Ireland can emulate them. All the pieces are in place and we have the perfect man to arrange them in the right order.
First there’s the little matter of inflicting England’s worst defeat on Irish soil since the Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598. Then all roads lead to France.
And now you’ve gotta believe us, we’re gonna win the cup.