Friday 23 February 2018

All eyes on Cardiff as Les Bleus sent packing

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton takes a penalty kick. Photo: Getty
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton takes a penalty kick. Photo: Getty
Schmidt was happy with the win, but knows Wales will be dangerous. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You won't get odds on Ireland retaining their lead at the top of the Six Nations table beyond this afternoon in Twickenham. England's modest points difference of plus 8, having had to battle their way through the first two rounds, will be a whole lot healthier by the time they are finished with Italy.

You will, however, get odds on Wales winning at home to Ireland in a fortnight. They have blown two games they could well have won, falling apart gradually in the second half in Edinburgh yesterday, and will be under intense pressure to salvage their pride if not their season. That's not the worst way to be playing Wales. Naturally enough, Joe Schmidt wouldn't admit to seeing it that way.

"For a lot of the game it looked to me like they had control of it," Schmidt said. "They had two tries disallowed. They'll be disappointed and determined to win, without doubt. You don't go to Cardiff and get anything easy."

That trip will be all the more attractive if Ireland's big players can reprise what they did yesterday. The back row is an incredibly hard-working unit, and CJ Stander's 23 carries gives clarity to his work-rate. It was hard to believe that Sean O'Brien didn't get on the podium there, rather it was Garry Ringrose with silver and Simon Zebo with bronze.

For Ringrose this entire adventure is one thrilling chapter after another. And now he's going to the Millennium. He gets better with every game, and you suspect part of it is driven by the instinct to stay alive in the demolition derby that is midfield in Test rugby.

He carried 17 times yesterday. Catching the ball 17 times would have been good enough on its own. As for Johnny Sexton, his savagely competitive attitude is invaluable.

"Johnny really controlled the game well, saw space well, took some really good options and as always didn't shirk the physical stuff," Schmidt said.

"I thought he was really positive. He varied the game. We varied it in the second-half. We had to get them chasing things rather than chasing us.

"He did it superbly, a couple of great kicks in behind them to keep the pressure on when we didn't have the ball. We aimed to give him 50 or 55 minutes. He had the wind knocked out of him and he had a few minutes rest, so we gave him a bit more time."

He looked wrecked but in one piece as he made way for Paddy Jackson, who did a decent job of locking the door and shutting up shop.

Given the crap conditions the Ireland pack traded really well. Their lineout was 100 per cent, and even if they didn't skittle the French out of it at the maul, it was good enough. After a slow start at the scrum, where it looked like Nigel Owens didn't like the look of Jack McGrath, that improved.

It's hard to see either of those rocks crumbling in Cardiff. Wales will bring a different sort of pressure to the equation but everything we've seen so far suggests they'll be able to cope.

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