Thursday 5 December 2019

Monday breakdown: Powerful Porter can step up to the mark for Ireland

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Joe Schmidt gave a frank assessment of Andrew Porter: "I think he was only getting his engine going at the end there."

You could see what the Ireland coach meant, but in truth, Porter hit the ground running when he was introduced after just three minutes.

An eerie silence fell around Lansdowne Road when Tadhg Furlong pulled up and had to be replaced.

Along with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, Furlong is central to Ireland's Six Nations' hopes, but the manner in which Porter handled himself on his Championship debut offered hope that it is not all doom and gloom.

Porter didn't have time to take in the occasion as he was thrust straight into a scrum. As a tighthead prop, the rock solid set-piece that followed was the best introduction possible.

You could see that the 22-year-old rapidly grew in confidence. Three of his 13 carries occurred in the first 10 minutes Porter was on the pitch. He played a key role in Robbie Henshaw's opening try with a strong carry before perfectly presenting the ball for Murray.

Greg Feek and John Fogarty have invested a lot of time in Porter and helped him with the switch from loosehead to tighthead.

At U-20 level, Porter was an outstanding loosehead but looking at the bigger picture, it made sense to fast-track him as a tighthead.

We have seen glimpses of his devastating power with ball in hand but against Italy, it was far more evident and he looked totally at home at that level.

That was a hallmark of Porter's game at under-age level. He has understandably concentrated on the nuts and bolts of his job, but as Saturday's evidence suggested, there is a lot more to come from Porter in a green jersey.

Midfield headaches mount

Ireland are now without their three first-choice centres, as Henshaw joined Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose on the injury list.

Bundee Aki might have something to say about that, especially after he delivered his best performance in an Ireland jersey.

The Connacht man still has work to do on his distribution, but he was much more of an attacking threat against Italy, as he looked to be getting to grips with Schmidt's game-plan.

The Wales game might come too early for Ringrose, who is nearing a return from his ankle injury, but Schmidt doesn't necessarily have to rush the Leinster midfielder back, particularly after Chris Farrell's performances in November.

It was perhaps telling that Farrell was one of the extra bodies on Saturday, and not Rory Scannell, who was chosen for the role in Paris.

Both players would do a job for Ireland, but Farrell appears to be in pole position to take over the number 13 jersey from Henshaw against Wales.

It was perhaps no coincidence that Ireland looked ragged at times after Henshaw went off injured. Speaking to Ringrose recently, he said that the Athlone native is like having an extra player on the pitch.

He has grown into a real defensive leader - whoever does come in has big boots to fill.

How much did Ireland learn?

When the shackles are off, Ireland are a great team to watch but it's all well and good doing it against Italy.

For all of their good work in attack, a huge focus will be on how and why Ireland managed to concede three tries against a patently poor side.

Conor O'Shea is a proud man but the scale of the task that he has on his hands was laid bare on Saturday.

The Dubliner doesn't want any patronising pats on the back for small victories but it's difficult to see Italy's fortunes changing any time soon.

The irony is, down through the years, Italy have had a decent pack who scrummage well, but now that has been flipped on its head as their pacey backs struggle to get the platform to build from as their forwards were bullied for the second week running.

Ireland are sitting pretty at the top of the table, but still have a lot of work to do. Schmidt wouldn't have it any other way at this stage.

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