Thursday 19 September 2019

Ryan shines in emotional send-off as Ireland move to top of world rankings for first time

Ireland 19 Wales 10

Rob Kearney scores Ireland’s first try despite the tackle from Leigh Halfpenny at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Rob Kearney scores Ireland’s first try despite the tackle from Leigh Halfpenny at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Probably best not to focus too much on the slightly bizarre stat that Ireland are on top of the world. Of course that's not a bad place to be going to the competition that determines for most people who deserves to enjoy that view.

The preamble skews things a bit when teams are mixed and matched and conditioning is aimed at events happening weeks later rather than what's unfolding that afternoon.

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Warren Gatland: Not complimentary to Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Warren Gatland: Not complimentary to Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

So what did yesterday do for Ireland as they head off to Japan, where Scotland wait, first up, in a fortnight? Well, it gave an appropriate send-off to Joe Schmidt and Rory Best on their last involvement in these parts. It gave the fans a chance to salute a Test match won against one of the better sides in the world. And it reaffirmed that this group have lots of resolve, and plenty of edge about the way they go about their business.

In these circumstances it was no surprise that the man of the match award went to one of the men who literally carried the fight to Wales. CJ Stander and Jack Conan each carried for 15, though it was James Ryan's 10 out of 10 that was recognised officially. He also managed 10 tackles as well as leading the lineout - the efficiency of which is an issue that won't go away quietly - and his presence in this side is vital.

So when the target narrowed in the second half and Ireland shortened their game, Ryan's leadership was especially important. "James Ryan is James Ryan and he keeps setting the bar higher for himself," Schmidt said afterwards.

The Ireland pack was stuffed with players looking to get involved in that project. It was the last thing Wales wanted. And rugby mostly is about doing what makes the opposition most uncomfortable.

Ireland's CJ Stander tackles Wales' Elliot Dee. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's CJ Stander tackles Wales' Elliot Dee. Photo: Sportsfile

"Ireland went back to what they're traditionally good at - playing off nine," Warren Gatland said of the winners in the second half. He didn't say this by way of compliment, rather to imply Ireland's wide game was not working, as he had articulated following the Cardiff game last weekend.

It was a fair enough comment. Losing two lineouts in a row in the first quarter put a screw in the head of the Ireland attack game, from which Wales took comfort. The highlight of the first half for the home team was Rob Kearney's try, his first since the final pool game, against France, on 22 minutes.

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It came after Ireland had set up a good position in the Welsh 22 and worked the space for Kearney to get over. Credit to Johnny Sexton, he delayed by a fraction the pass to his fullback and it was enough to wrongfoot flanker Aaron Wainwright.

Sexton's conversion put Ireland 7-0 ahead. There was a delighted response from the crowd who hoped this was the start of a rout, only for Leigh Halfpenny - who missed with a shot from a soft penalty conceded by Jean Kleyn after just three minutes - to hit the target.

Ireland's Rory Best leaves the pitch after being substituted. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Rory Best leaves the pitch after being substituted. Photo: Sportsfile

Wales settled quickly after that. They almost had an intercept try for replacement Dan Biggar but Robbie Henshaw did very well to chase him down. And then they set themselves up in the Ireland 22 late in the half, Hadleigh Parkes got his line and timing spot on to wrongfoot about five Irish defenders who were joined at the hip instead of occupying some more space. So, a 10-7 lead for Wales and Gatland was well pleased. Better was to come with what was a painful close to the half for the home team.

It was if they were in a force field whose epicentre was in between their own 10-metre line and halfway. They could go left and right but didn't have the craft or the power to get into the red half of the field. It ended with Sexton running a wrap in the hope of connecting with the outside.

Spotting Jake Ball in the red defensive line probably encouraged Sexton to slide out the back but the second-row met him full-on, and once referee Maynal was calling maul that was that. Not great.

It didn't affect them unduly however. Maybe it highlighted the need to strong-arm Wales closer to the breakdown. And to get more of a squeeze on them at the scrum. Oddly enough, the chance to put all of this into action came indirectly off a poor kick by Sexton which Wales managed to turn over at the tackle under pressure from Jordan Larmour.

From left, Ireland's Robbie Henshaw, Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock. Photo: Sportsfile
From left, Ireland's Robbie Henshaw, Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock. Photo: Sportsfile

When Sexton nudged it to touch it was either going to be the start of something nourishing or another morsel falling in between the cracks. To their credit, they were patient and mean and utterly focused, through penalties, scrums and carries in the Wales 22, to stay there until it got dark if necessary. When at last Tadhg Furlong surged over from close range there were 51 minutes on the clock. Sexton added the extras for a 14-10 lead.

Nothing much changed in the trend of the game from there until the final whistle. The Welsh scrum didn't improve, with both sides emptying their benches. Conan, Ryan and Stander kept the foot down. Behind the scrum there were a few willing subjects as well. Bundee Aki is not a huge man by any means but he is invaluable in carrying into traffic.

Again Ireland's defence was very good - as it had been in Cardiff. Given the focus and aggression of the home forwards in the second half, it didn't come under so much stress, but it was functional. It was a job done.

Scorers - Ireland: R Kearney, T Furlong, J Ryan try each; J Sexton 2 cons. Wales: H Parkes try; L Halpenny pen, con.

Ireland: R Kearney; J Larmour, R Henshaw, B Aki, K Earls (G Ringrose 53); J Sexton (J Carty 64), C Murray (L McGrath 72); C Healy (HIA D Kilcoyne ht), R Best (capt) (S Cronin 53), T Furlong (A Porter 57), J Ryan, J Kleyn (I Henderson 53), CJ Stander, J Conan, J van der Flier (R Ruddock 60).

Wales: L Halfpenny (L Williams 66); G North, J Davies, H Parkes, J Adams; R Patchell (HIA D Biggar 24), T Williams (G Davies 70); W Jones (N Smith 60), E Dee (K Owens 60) T Francis (D Lewis 60), J Ball (A Beard 75), AW Jones (capt), A Wainwright, R Moriarty, J Tipuric.

Referee: M Raynal (France)

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