We’ll try not to lose the run of ourselves but by most any standard Saturday’s performance by an Ireland side (albeit one close to full strength) in the opening game of a Test window – whether Autumn or Six Nations – has the nation purring at what might possibly lie ahead.
Whether we were witnessing the rugby equivalent of Manchester United thumping Tottenham ahead of Manchester City next up will be coldly revealed in five days’ time. Make no mistake, the most complete unit in the world game will be in opposition when I suspect the same Irish team, hopefully clad in green, takes to the field for the biggest rugby challenge of all.
It must be noted that the Japanese were playing just their fourth game since that impressive World Cup on home soil in 2019, although they did manage to push the Wallabies all the way in their last Test outing a few weeks ago. That said, and let’s not mince our words here, they were truly abysmal in the Aviva this time.
Just how good Ireland were – or how bad Japan were – will be revealed by the arrival of the All Blacks. We knew we would dominate physically up front; however, it was the clear and obvious desire to play at pace whether wide out or closer in but significantly looking to offload at every possible opportunity which took the substance of this performance to a newer level under Andy Farrell.
It marked a new departure with this group of senior players, although the blueprint was on display against the same opposition as well as against the US Eagles back in the summer.
But with respect to Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, Japanese and New Zealand rugby at the highest level are still poles apart despite the majesty of what we witnessed from the Brave Blossoms at that last World Cup. In terms of excitement, no other nation, not even the Kiwis, came close.
I am not privy to what goes on in the Ireland camp but from the outside looking in I suspect that Paul O’Connell’s arrival has added enormously to the coaching team and to the status of that group in the eyes of the players. Credit Farrell for enlisting the former Ireland skipper.
What you see is what you get. Even listening to him in the build-up to this opening test of the Autumn series smacked of calm and confident assurance.
The chemistry will be somewhat different at training in the coming days – that is inevitable – but hopefully the broad principles in attack will continue. The defensive line speed will exert a different level of pressure and intensity but unless we seek to replicate that wider attacking strategy we are heading up a cul de sac on the road to France ’23.
With the exception of Robbie Henshaw, and perhaps Jordan Larmour and possibly Jacob Stockdale, it is difficult to think of where we might add an extra string or two. On the assumption Henshaw is still unavailable then the case for retaining the same match-day 23 is open and shut. In individual terms it was a game to remember and one to restore confidence for Andrew Conway and even more so James Lowe.
Lowe has had his critics and justifiably so for defensive indiscretions but his ability to suck in defensive cover and still offload down the left tramline makes him a near certainty for the cap he will treasure above all others in a few days’ time.
Garry Ringrose too will have received a timely boost having missed out on Lions selection during the summer. Johnny Sexton doesn’t need that confidence jab and again on Saturday on a very special day he was regal in almost everything he did as he continues to be head and shoulders above his rivals for the out-half position. Jamison Gibson-Park too was immense and he can also (like Lowe) look forward with confidence to running out in opposition to his country of birth.
Up front, Tadhg Beirne fully justified his second-row selection ahead of Iain Henderson, while Jack Conan remains our outstanding No 8 as the South African experience with the Lions sees him visibly developing in stature and presence.
Indeed on a day when so many players in purple (less said about that the better) put up their hands for the man of the match gong, it went to the right one. And I don’t think it’s just me but Dan Sheehan (as with Leinster) in his short time on looks another serious talent at the highest level.
Given the magnitude of what lies now ahead there will be no room for even the slightest shred of complacency. Beating Japan was expected but the manner and magnitude not so. It was a romp but only because we made it so. We have the physicality and it too is increasing but the will to attack around the edges and still throw in the odd bomb when appropriate makes for a much more challenging mix.
It is a long time since I have looked forward to an Autumn International so much. What we witnessed against Japan has whetted the appetite even more. It could make for a classic. Prepare for lift-off.