Wednesday 12 December 2018

Murray and Sexton lead young guns on day to remember for Ireland

Ireland 37 Wales 27

Conor Murray of Ireland following the win over Wales
Conor Murray of Ireland following the win over Wales
Ireland's Conor Murray of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Amid the fretting over the Irish players who weren't available to face Wales on Saturday, one incontrovertible truth was probably overlooked: As long as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are fit and firing, the team as a whole will perform.

Take Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson out of the starting XV and replace them with three players with just 12 caps between them and fans and pundits will understandably get jittery. However, with Joe Schmidt designing a game plan and his lieutenants in chief ready to set the standards and carry it out, they will always be able to compete with the best.

Bundee Aki of Ireland scores his side's second try. Photo: Sportsfile
Bundee Aki of Ireland scores his side's second try. Photo: Sportsfile

Sexton had a baffling afternoon in many respects, but it is perhaps pertinent to separate his two main responsibilities.

The out-half's goal-kicking was well below his normal standards and perhaps the back issue he appears to have been carrying played on his mind.

Bradley Davies of Wales in action against James Ryan of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Bradley Davies of Wales in action against James Ryan of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Everything else was outstanding.

His drop-offs were delicious, his passing was crisp and well-timed and he was commanding in his leadership role.

He knows that if Ireland had let this game slip he'd have been pilloried for his inaccuracy with the boot and that decision to tap and go with a 68th-minute penalty when a kick would have nudged Ireland 10 points in front and taken the sting out of the game.

But he has earned the right to make those decisions and, while it ultimately didn't come off, his coach said he backed him to the hilt.

When the time came for Ireland to stretch their lead, it was Murray - just up from a knee injury that looked far worse than it proved - who nailed the kick as Sexton left the arena.

At one point, minutes earlier, they both lay prone on the ground getting treatment. It's the type of thing that must keep Schmidt awake at night.

The coach didn't deviate much from the game-plan that has come up short in Wales in recent seasons, but this time the hard-running possession game reaped rich rewards.

Having kept England to 12 points at Twickenham, Warren Gatland's side gave up five tries in Dublin as they failed to handle the Irish power game.

Wales' attack was prettier and their three tries will concern Andy Farrell, but the Irish were far more effective in dominating the ball and bullying defenders.

In the build-up, Schmidt noted that Wales are a smaller team than they were and he made it count. Ireland's carriers fought for every inch, their breakdown speed was excellent and their half-backs kept making good decisions.

They hogged possession and spent most of the game in Welsh territory, crucially making it pay.

And with the leaders guiding them, the new breed stepped up.

Between them, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Dan Leavy have yet to lose a game for their country. In three weeks' time, they could be part of just the third Irish team to win a Grand Slam. They all stepped up at different moments, but Farrell was the man of the match and Murray reckons it was a deserved award.

"Me and Johnny do a lot of work together, we've played together for quite a while now and there's a good understanding there, but the link we have between forwards and backs, in the first-half especially, our momentum was really good," said the Munster man.

"Our breakdown, we got front-foot ball and our backs shone off that. Bundee and Chris deserve a lot of credit. Chris got Man of the Match, it's well deserved. Johnny and I play as well as we can, but we're only as good as the lads around us.

"Robbie has done such a good job for us over the last few years and Chris is a laid-back guy, but he probably felt a bit of pressure to perform today.

"The type of guy he is, I obviously play club rugby with him and he's been playing well all year. I knew he could handle the pressure and deliver a really good performance. He's only going to get better, which is scary."

Tries from Stockdale book-ended Ireland's contribution to a helter-skelter game, with Wales hanging in and securing an unlikely lead through Gareth Davies and Leigh Halfpenny, before Ireland hit them for three tries from Aki, Leavy and Cian Healy in a 15-minute period either side of half-time.

They should have been further than 14 points up, but the game was all the better for it as tries from Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans engineered a grandstand finish and the young Ulster winger chose his moment to secure the win.

Ireland - R Kearney; K Earls (F McFadden 64), C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery 77), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 64), R Best (capt) (S Cronin ), A Porter (John Ryan 66), James Ryan, D Toner (Q Roux 74); P O'Mahony (J Conan 67), D Leavy, CJ Stander.

Wales- L Halfpenny; L Williams (G North 65), S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; D Biggar, G Davies; R Evans (W Jones 56-74), K Owens (E Dee 56), S Lee (T Francis 56); C Hill (B Davies 65), AW Jones (capt); A Shingler, J Navidi, R Moriarty (J Tipuric 65).

Ref - G Jackson (New Zealand)

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