Sunday 24 March 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Ireland scale new heights with Beauty and the Beast'

Ringrose and Stander combine to breathe confidence and belief back into the team

Garry Ringrose loses control of the ball as he slides over the French try line during yesterday’s Six Nations clash. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose loses control of the ball as he slides over the French try line during yesterday’s Six Nations clash. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

They're Ireland's version of Beauty and the Beast. One is a rugby artist defined by his sublime subtlety and creativity. The other is a warrior who relishes and thrives on the most demanding of physical exchanges.

What Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander have in common is that Ireland are always a lesser team without them, something clearly illustrated as the Leinster centre and the Munster number eight made stunning returns to action against France.

France’s Gregory Alldritt struggles to hold back CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile
France’s Gregory Alldritt struggles to hold back CJ Stander. Photo: Sportsfile

The concerned talk about Ireland's stuttering attempts at recovery after the setback against England had largely overlooked the absence of Stander and Ringrose, who'd both been hors de combat since that opening day defeat.

Yet the presence of both is crucial if Joe Schmidt's team is to play to its full potential. Ringrose's centre colleagues Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell and Robbie Henshaw are all excellent players but lack his creative gifts. An Irish centre partnership without Ringrose tends towards the one dimensional.

Stander also contributes something unique, a ball-carrying ability rivalled in the Six Nations only by Billy Vunipola. His facility at crossing the gain line provides an ideal platform for a team which functions best when stringing phases together.

The best qualities of both players were much in evidence as Ireland returned to the ruthlessness and relentlessness of 2018.

At times Ringrose seemed like a DJ spinning welcome reprises of beloved hits. The wraparound combination between himself and Johnny Sexton which produced Ireland's second try is an old favourite at national and club level. But it needs a player of Ringrose's talent for perfect execution. His superbly timed no-look pass to put Sexton in was a wonder.

Another blast from the past got an airing in the 32nd minute as Ringrose leaped to beat French full-back Thomas Ramos to a high Sexton kick. When he crossed the line it evoked memories of the try he'd scored in Twickenham 12 months ago when following up a similar delivery. This time, however, the ball slipped from his grasp at the last second.

There was also something reassuringly familiar about Stander's contribution from the moment he crashed though Romain Ntamack on his first run. It beggared belief that the man was returning from fractures to the cheekbone and eye socket. Or would have if this wasn't CJ Stander. Topping the charts for both carries and tackles made, he yet again displayed a work rate verging on the pathological.

But while Stander may have been in beast mode there was a definite beauty about his inside pass to set up Keith Earls for the fourth try. And though Ringrose's most eye-catching moments take place in an attacking context, he is also an excellent defender, his hounding of French scrum-half Antoine Dupont into conceding a five-metre scrum displaying this part of his game.

Another returnee, James Ryan, was level with Stander on tackles and just one behind him on carries. He also propelled Rory Best over the line for the first try, made a couple of spectacular soaring takes from kick-offs and generally performed at the level which makes him perhaps the most prodigious young forward talent to emerge since Richie McCaw burst onto the scene.

Best was another who missed the fiasco in Rome. In his Six Nations farewell at the Aviva he was as profoundly solid as ever. For all the agonising about our half-backs, few teams could be at their best without players like Ringrose, Stander, Ryan and Best.

We can stop agonising about Sexton, who reminded the sceptics that you don't win World Player of the Year for nothing. A couple of lovely first-quarter passes were especially cheering because the transfer took place quickly enough to deny the possibility of cheap shots on the Irish number ten. That Garryowen Ringrose nearly turned into a try was ultra-impressive. The boy is back in form. Spread the word around.

Conor Murray's progress is more gradual but the graph is trending upwards. King Charles II once told his ambitious brother: "They will not kill me, Jamie, to make you king." The Munster scrum-half is in the same situation. He must be persisted with because none of his rivals offer anything like the same upside as an on-form Conor Murray.

Crown

The Six Nations might work out ideally in terms of World Cup preparation. When Ireland lost to England the rest of the championship threatened to be an anti-climax. Instead they travel to Wales with a chance of retaining their Six Nations crown even if a Scottish win over England is unlikely.

All the same, a Welsh team going for a Grand Slam at a venue where Ireland have lost their last two games offers the perfect test of strength.

The importance of the Wales showdown to Schmidt was evident when Sexton, Best and Tadhg Furlong were withdrawn after Earls' try. Thoughts had turned towards Cardiff and the remaining 20-odd minutes were the very definition of Garbage Time.

France got in for a couple of late tries but seldom has a losing margin been so flattering. Not one of their players would make the Irish team. They look like they're being coached by Inspector Clouseau.

Wales will be different. By next Saturday evening we'll know if Ireland still have what it takes. Expect Beauty and the Beast to be in the thick of the action.

Irish Independent

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