Wednesday 23 January 2019

It's starting to feel like this is our year as bold Joe Schmidt's decisions pay off

Chris Farrell of Ireland is tackled by Samson Lee of Wales
Chris Farrell of Ireland is tackled by Samson Lee of Wales
Ireland’s Chris Farrell is tackled by Welsh duo Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler during yesterday’s Six Nations match. Photo: Photo: Paul Faith/Getty
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The kids are alright. In fact, they're bloody brilliant. Take Chris Farrell, who within a minute of his Six Nations debut, was nailing Liam Williams with a thumping tackle.

In the first quarter of that debut he played a major role as Ireland put Wales on the back foot, getting over the gain-line with alacrity, displaying a level of physicality the visitors simply couldn't cope with. He was to the fore again in the move which led to Johnny Sexton kicking the penalty which cut the deficit from 13-5 to 13-8 five minutes before the break.

On the hour there he was flinging big Welsh flanker Aaron Shingler around the shop. And seven minutes from time it was Farrell's tackle on Scott Williams which prevented Wales from creating an overlap which it seems sure, given the evidence of the day, they would have fully exploited. That led to the scrum which led to the penalty kicked by Conor Murray which gave Ireland what proved to be a crucial cushion. Simply put, the 24-year-old was everywhere and his man-of-the-match award was richly deserved.

And what of Andrew Porter? There'd been talk all week of how Wales were going to target the 22-year-old tighthead making his first Six Nations start. When Ireland forced a scrum five metres from the Welsh line in the 53rd minute, Porter's opposite number Rob Evans, who was playing international rugby before the St Andrew's College boy had even joined the Leinster Academy, appealed to the officials to keep an eye on Porter.

He's only a kid after all and here was Wales' chance to get out of a corner by exploiting that.

Instead the Irish scrum, as it had been all game, was rock-solid and a minute later Cian Healy was ploughing over for Ireland's fourth try. A minute after that the Welsh front-row was replaced en masse. It turned out they were the ones who'd been targeted.

In international rugby terms, Porter is a neophyte. But he's still a year older than James Ryan. Yet Ryan doesn't seem like a youngster. Two games into his Six Nations career he seems like a leader. So dominant was his performance in France, you'd have understood had Ryan suffered a bit of a sophomore slump in his home Six Nations debut.

Instead he was immense once more. If there was a Lions tour tomorrow, Ryan would be on it. Which isn't bad going for a youngster who only made his provincial debut back in September. Right now this lad is defying logic.

There is something a bit different about Jacob Stockdale too. Farrell's fellow Tyrone man set the ball rolling for Ireland when taking a superb Johnny Sexton pass and dotting down in the left corner after six minutes. More importantly, he provided the final act of the game when he swooped to intercept Gareth Anscombe's pass as Wales sought to engineer a winning score and ran away from his pursuers like a wild horse disappearing over the hills.

That makes it eight tries from seven Tests for Stockdale, the kind of strike-rate you generally associate with wingers wearing a silver fern on their jersey. There really is something of the Savea or Sivivatu about Stockdale. Joining him among the try scorers was Dan Leavy, an athletic back-row marvel whose early elevation to the Leinster first team can make him seem a bit older than the quartet previously mentioned. But Leavy is only 23.

It's easy to talk about strength in depth in the abstract. But it's a quality a bit like friendship, its true nature only becomes clear when you're in need. Rob Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson would be losses to any team, three Lions and three world-class performers, the last two of them in areas where Ireland not long ago had seemed a bit light on cover. Yet the ability of players with minimal Six Nations experience to fill in to such stunning effect tells a story about how Ireland are evolving as a team.

That Joe Schmidt is cautious and conservative is almost an article of faith even among his admirers. Yet this does the Ireland manager a disservice. His willingness to give youth its chance has been exemplary and was rewarded in spades yesterday. Without much heed being passed there's been quite the restructuring going on with the Ireland team. Only seven of the starting 15 defeated by Wales last year started at the Aviva.

What an enormous change in just 12 months. Go back a year ago and the names of Stockdale, Ryan, Farrell and Porter would have been on nobody's lips when it came to discussing the international team. Schmidt has been much bolder than anyone would have expected and deserves credit for it.

This is not to stint the contribution of the older hands - Conor Murray whose quickness of pass and tactical nous have rarely been as much in evidence as they were yesterday, the utterly rejuvenated Cian Healy, Keith Earls, who seems the sharpest he's ever been in a green jersey, the remorseless CJ Stander, the inexorable Rory Best. Yet there was a youthful zest about the Irish performance which seemed to take its lead from the energy of the tyros.

There was something uniquely exhilarating about this victory. It might have lacked the precision which was present in the Championship-winning sides of three and four years ago but that is something which will come with experience. For the moment though it's clear that some days a lot can also be said for inexperience.

Three down, two to go. Doesn't it feel like our year?

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