Saturday 23 June 2018

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Tight spot never a problem as powerful Porter delivers in spades

'As you might expect, Wales targeted Porter yesterday and had the advantage of having an all-Scarlets front-row who knew how to work in unison to do it.' Photo: Sportsfile
'As you might expect, Wales targeted Porter yesterday and had the advantage of having an all-Scarlets front-row who knew how to work in unison to do it.' Photo: Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

When Welsh rugby fans heard a few days ago that Tadhg Furlong had lost his battle with a strained hamstring to be fit for yesterday's game, their hopes of victory grew even more. With a rookie coming in to replace one of the world's best tightheads, that had to be good news for Wales.

But I remember some New Zealand coaching friends of mine raving about the potential of Andrew Porter when he was a wrecking ball at the Under 20 World Cup a couple of years ago.

Leinster - and the IRFU - looked at the depth of looseheads in the country and decided that it was a better strategy to convert Porter to tighthead. And how that decision is now starting to pay off. I'd say my New Zealand friends will be saying, 'We told you so', today. Porter is an incredibly powerful young man and already holds some of the records in Leinster in terms of Olympic lifts, but pure strength alone is no guarantee when it comes to playing tighthead prop. Many have tried to convert but few have succeeded, especially at the highest level. A prop is not just a prop. Making the change across is like trying to write with your non-writing hand.

As you might expect, Wales targeted Porter yesterday and had the advantage of having an all-Scarlets front-row who knew how to work in unison to do it. But Porter, despite his inexperience, used former Ireland stalwart Mike Ross's mantra, 'I will go up or I will go down but I won't go back' and he pinned our scrum height so low on the right-hand side that we had quality ball all afternoon. He deserves a lie-in this morning.

In fact, it wasn't just Porter in terms of inexperienced players who stood up in a breathless match. Chris Farrell repaid Joe Schmidt's faith in him with a huge display and was deservedly man of the match. He brought all his physicality to bear.

We should not forget that one of the key reasons that we have struggled against Wales over the last 10 years has been because we struggled to live with their power game. It's a testament to the strength and conditioning programmes that are now so advanced and sophisticated at all levels of the game that we are now producing power athletes like Farrell, Porter, Jacob Stockdale, and James Ryan who can dominate opponents in the collision despite being young men.

When you combine that power with the work-rate and organisation that Schmidt and his coaches have instilled in them then you have a team that the country can be immensely proud of.

Ireland should have won this game comfortably such was our dominance in terms of possession and scoring opportunities. The reason we didn't was that Johnny Sexton didn't have his kicking boots on but having said that his general game was exceptional and he played flat on the gain-line - spraying passes into runners who ran at subtle angles to test the Welsh defence at every phase.

In terms of ambition and detail this was an attacking performance that was a step up again from Italy, and to score five tries - and 37 points in all, which could easily have been 47 - against a Shaun Edwards-coached defence is as rare as hen's teeth.

Ireland were not afraid to run from deep when it was on and if they didn't manage to make the line-break they still often forced Wales into conceding a penalty that presented even better field position.

Every element of Ireland's performance was excellent except for the concession of three tries - and the missed kicks - but I think it's important to understand that every system has strengths and weaknesses.

Ireland are set up to be very sound defensively between the two 15-metre lines and risk giving the opposition some space on the outside. Wales, with players like Liam Williams, Steff Evans and impact sub George North, are incredibly dangerous and they stretched Ireland on occasions and they converted those chances into tries.

Scotland - as they showed with devastating effect against England last night - are also comfortable attacking the space out wide and they served notice that Ireland will have to be careful against them, especially from turnover ball. Ireland will seek to dominate possession and territory once again to minimise the influence of Finn Russell, who pulled the strings so brilliantly at Murrayfield.

England are more direct and our defence will be very strong in the areas that they tend to attack.

Wales, to their credit, never dropped the head despite Ireland squeezing them hard and their bench definitely made an impact. For the second match in a row the change of putting Gareth Anscombe into 10 made them look more dangerous and apart from his intercept pass at the end he had a big influence on the Welsh fightback.

Conor Murray really is something else. It was clear when Ireland deliberated on whether to kick a penalty for goal or the corner that the key decision-makers in this Irish team are Rory Best, Sexton and Murray, as it was that trio who discussed the options.

Already in this competition we have seen Murray run, pass, box-kick and tackle at high levels which are part of a normal scrum-half's job description but also being lifted in the lineout and catching the ball and yesterday we saw him kick a crucial penalty at a key moment in the match when Sexton was receiving treatment. Having the skill-set but also the courage and mental strength to kick that penalty is very, very rare.

After a match of that intensity it's fortunate that we have two weeks to recover for Scotland. Joe Schmidt will focus on the work-ons and learnings to make sure that we prepare and perform again at a high level and while it will be a tough match I can't see Ireland slipping up in Dublin against Gregor Townsend's men.

With 14 from a possible maximum of 15 points, Ireland's dreams of Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Championship glory on St Patrick's Day are still very much alive.

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