Friday 22 March 2019

Tony Ward: 'Physical, patient and precise - Gatland won't sleep easy after this'

 

Stander delivers: CJ Stander supported by team-mates Iain Henderson (left) and Rory Best is tackled by France’s Gregory Alldritt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Stander delivers: CJ Stander supported by team-mates Iain Henderson (left) and Rory Best is tackled by France’s Gregory Alldritt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The demand was for a performance of substance and a win, preferably by way of a bonus point, but in that order. On all counts we came up trumps with our most complete opening half of this Six Nations by a mile.

The second half wasn't too shabby either and crucially embraced emptying the bench and getting so many key players off the field and rested given what lies ahead in five days' time.

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The two late French tries will have disappointed and given the scoreline a disjointed look such was the manner in which we dominated this game almost from first whistle to last. It's a shame the French weren't 'nilled' because in truth they deserved to be by way of an Irish performance that took us back to where we were at the same venue against the All Blacks and Pumas four months ago.

This was the confident Ireland of last year's Grand Slam-winning campaign. It wasn't perfect but was light years removed from everything delivered in the opening three rounds. The early Rory Best try by way of a tactically brilliant Jordan Larmour kick to within metres of the French line gave us just the start we needed to settle the nerves.

Demonic

What we witnessed was a Joe Schmidt team playing the Joe way and the number of demonic box-kicks by either Irish scrum-half could be counted on one hand. The gods were good too in providing us with the type of day when the Louis Picamoles/Mathieu Bastareaud barnstorming influence could be kept to a minimum. Bastareaud's moments were precious few with the No 8's gainline-breaking scarcely mapped.

By contrast, we had all the P's. We were hugely physical, equally patient but more than anything we were precise in almost everything we did with the elements doing their bit to help us out.

Instead of conditions dictating strategy we had Conor Murray and most particularly Johnny Sexton doing just that. Not yet close to top gear as the best game-running half-back partnership about but with a big step taken for a collective return to that exalted position. The Cardiff battle of the halves should be something else again but at least ours now look ready.

We totally dominated the first half, holding the French in a vice-grip within their 22. We crossed the whitewash three times and might well have had two more through Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose. These two were outstanding with both in the frame for man of the match.

So too were Keith Earls, skipper Best (with his most complete outing to date), CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony as well as the game's official outstanding player James Ryan.

After an early French second-half surge in intensity we took up where we left off and pinned Les Bleus deep in their own territory but with Earls' brilliant bonus-point try scant reward for the green dominance in that period.

Against that, with the game won and going into the final quarter came the opportunity Schmidt would have dreamt about all week in all but emptying his bench in or around the hour mark.

At 26-0, there could be but one outcome and what an opportunity to give relative youth and inexperience its fling while at the same time resting the tried and trusted, the guaranteed starters to face the Welsh in what is now a Championship showdown with the big three still in the mix.

The Grand Slam will of course be on the line for the Welsh but given the way this Championship has panned out could there be a greater incentive in travelling to Cardiff then in search of the perfect win to launch the preparation for Japan in earnest?

Of course it would have been even better reaching this stage in pursuit of a back-to-back Grand Slam but given the circumstances this is the equivalent of a World Cup knockout game.

To see the rookie replacements and specifically the half-backs John Cooney and Jack Carty come on and perform in the manner they did represents a massive bonus.

Ultan Dillane too has that Seán Cronin/Seán O'Brien impact factor that makes their Japanese case amongst the replacements impossible to ignore. Carty has a confident dynamic to his game that is going to make selection interesting and cause great concern for Ross Byrne and, dare we suggest, for Joey Carbery too going forward.

Emptied

On the down side, it was most disappointing to concede those two late tries and bear in mind that they too had emptied their bench so that excuse doesn't hold. It means in effect that the French took the second half 14-7 and that sure doesn't stack up. Despite hints of a Gallic resurrection against the Welsh and Scots in Paris, French rugby is still in a bad way.

Ireland won pulling up against a French side that is all over the place. How times have changed. From an Irish perspective, and despite the damp finish, it was everything we hoped it would be for the opening hour.

We are back in the chase with Saturday's trek to the Principality and a potential Welsh Grand Slam and Championship anything but a foregone conclusion. No doubt he will come out with his usual bluster but expect Warren Gatland to sleep a little less easy in the coming days.

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