Tony Ward: Replacements step up to the mark to give Schmidt selection dilemmas for Scotland ‘semi-final’
There have been many great Ireland-Wales encounters down through the years. I've played in one or two myself and attended almost every other but few if any compare to what we witnessed on Saturday in Lansdowne Road.
Indeed, this was like the Lansdowne of old with not even the slightest hint of a Mexican wave and hardly anyone leaving their seats before the final whistle.
Even new-age fans were riveted to the spot and totally in tune with matters on the field. In technical terms, what we witnessed was a Welsh side with the emphasis as expected very much on individual and collective line speed, a la Shaun Edwards. The Welsh decision to commit precious few to the breakdown saw Joe Schmidt employ the inside route via consistent reverse passing (allied to the occasional Conor Murray kick special) as the prime ground-breaking gambit. It worked but almost at a price.
Attacking close to the set-piece and tackle area saw the wide Irish players sucked in and squeezed much too tight for comfort, particularly on the turnover. There were remnants of the less reassuring moments from the Italy game and again in the final quarter. Credit Rob Howley and Wales for battling back in the manner they did but rest assured Andy Farrell (whose positive impact has been immense) will be looking for a better balance against the equally adventurous Scottish equivalent under Greg Townsend and Finn Russell. Even at this distance the thought of the game against the Scots whets the appetite.
Thus far, it has been a fantastic championship and given the reaction I am having from folk in the southern hemisphere, it is resonating worldwide. We are not the finished article but we know that and for me it is the biggest plus going into the Lansdowne semi against the Scots and hopefully the Paddy's Day Twickenham Finale to follow.
For whatever reason - and only the ace kicker himself knows the answer - Johnny Sexton was out of kilter off the tee. But the truly great players put goal-kicking issues to one side and motor on regardless. In that, like so many others around him on Saturday, our out-half was imperious.
Given the quality of the opposition, this was by some way our best performance to date. As somebody suggested to me ahead of kick-off, "We've got the easy two out of the way". How times have changed, but would you bet against Les Bleus putting one over on the chariot in a fortnight's time?
Travelling to Murrayfield and Stade de France in the lead-in to what we all hope will be a St Patrick's Day showdown is hardly the ideal route for England. Not that Ireland are complaining.
But back to Saturday and an opening quarter straight from the head coach's wildest dreams, the odd Sexton goal-kicking glitch apart. Physical intent was declared early and chiefly in the form of numbers eight and 13. CJ Stander has dropped a level from the spectacular of last season but when we needed one more than any other to deliver inch-making forward momentum, Stander was the man. He was brilliant in that tone-setting first 20 and, along with the equally robust and perhaps even more effective Chris Farrell, rules of engagement were declared. Farrell ultimately got the official nod for man of the match and I have no quarrel with that but any one from Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Conor Murray, Stander or any of the three new kids on the block - Andrew Porter, James Ryan or Dan Leavy - could have been honoured.
We wondered, no make that feared, how Porter, Ryan and Farrell would fare in replacing Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw respectively but they did it extremely well. The scrum was rock-solid, Ryan was everywhere and Farrell immense.
So put yourself in the main man's shoes and how easy is he going to find it to reinstall Furlong, Henderson and/or Garry Ringrose on the back of what we witnessed from the replacement trio? Ryan will now leapfrog Devin Toner (who was also immense) into first-choice lock like Paul O'Connell and I won't quibble with that. Farrell has surely done enough to retain his place ahead of Ringrose who should come into the 23 as utility cover although I would still make a strong case for Jordan Larmour in terms of potential impact in a crisis off the bench.
I suggested at the start of this season that Dan Leavy, given his physical development since leaving school, had the potential to become another Richie McCaw. He is now on that road. The former St Michael's breakaway still possesses the sixth sense of a roving flanker but is so much stronger and is becoming much more streetwise when positioned over the ball.
Schmidt and Simon Easterby are spoilt for choice in the back-row but they know the real challenge is getting the balance right (factoring in the opposition).
Mention too of Greg Feek. I wouldn't even pretend to know what the scrum engineer does to make what we witnessed on Saturday in Furlong's absence happen but he has created one very happy bunny in the newly-converted tighthead and an equally happy nation on the back of it.
And as for Murray my respect holds no bounds. He is the epitome of honesty and coolness in a rugby player. Stepping forward to take that vital penalty to put us out to ten ahead typified the courage of the man. Aaron Smith is a superb yet different type of scrum-half but the outstanding purveyor in the linking art just now is wearing the green number nine.
Three down, two to go with the 'semi-final' next up. Pinch yourself but hold the head as we move ever closer to that 'box seat'.