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What we witnessed on Saturday wasn't your populist nonsense but a crowd at one with its players

Tony Ward


Sublime Conway sums up push to exorcise World Cup demons

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Ireland supporters celebrate as Andrew Conway of Ireland scores his side's fourth try during the Six Nations win over Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Ireland supporters celebrate as Andrew Conway of Ireland scores his side's fourth try during the Six Nations win over Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Ireland supporters celebrate as Andrew Conway of Ireland scores his side's fourth try during the Six Nations win over Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

We are all prone to a little exaggeration from time to time so we'll try and keep a lid on this one. Not since November 2018 when the All Blacks came to town have I been party to a Lansdowne Road atmosphere in which players and supporters were umbilically linked from first minute to last.

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What we witnessed on Saturday wasn't your populist 'Fields of Athenry' nonsense but a crowd at one with its players, willing them on in adversity when momentum might have been shifting and the ultimate outcome heading the other way.

Players help crowds make the atmosphere and not the other way around but by extension the terraces then drive players those extra yards. This was a game and a performance to lift the spirit and one underpinned by the first substantial hint of a World Cup exorcism.

We haven't won anything but a two-from-two start is a useful launching pad. But much more relevant was an 80-minute no-holds-barred performance unrecognisable from seven days before.

This was real Test rugby reminiscent of Joe Schmidt intensity at its best but loaded with very definite hints of a squad looking to break free of any straitjackets – practical or psychological.

We still, as Andy Farrell stated, have a way to go but the hints at a new beginning were there for all to see. We still do far too much box-kicking or, let me put it another way (as that appears to be a criticism solely aimed at Conor Murray which it is most definitely not), much too much aimless kicking, conceding possession cheaply and far too often. And because of the way we play our No 9 tends to be the biggest culprit.

Murray was one of many to step up to the mark against the Welsh and has in the process copperfastened his place for Twickenham so the debate versus John Cooney can rest for one more game at least.

In collective terms, the lineout was by a large bountiful despite one specific glitch of note and here again at throw-in time and general play Rob Herring was outstanding.

The scrum creaked again early but settled whereby each unit took its own put-in comfortably (the word strike no longer applies). For the purists, the quality at the breakdown was majestic and while Justin Tipuric was again masterful in all he did (their best player alongside the skipper one row up), all three Irish loosies (for that's what they were on this day) battled for balance and ball at every conceivable opportunity.

It would be a travesty if any of Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier or CJ Stander were to lose their place for Twickenham. Caelan Doris and Max Deegan will have their day but the status quo should remain for the England game.

But this was a day of big performances. Tadhg Furlong was again immense and not just as a wrecking ball but as a controlled leader and steady ball-carrier in the white heat of mayhem. He tied with Stander and Van der Flier as our most effective forward in my book.

The man of the match gong went to the Ireland No 8 and he too was awesome in work ethic and impact but for me Andrew Conway was in a different league to everyone else.

Whether in defence or attack, running or kicking, chasing or covering, his performance was in the Nadia Comaneci perfect-ten category. One first-half kick off the outside of his right foot from 22 to 22 represented a moment of sublime skill, while his defensive reading was matched only by his athleticism in the air which in itself is remarkable for one so relatively small.

Alongside him Jordan Larmour continues to grow in confidence. He scored a try which he had no right to get, one in which his footwork was surpassed by raw desire or 'true grit'.

He will commit the occasional own goal, but as an example as to how the game should be played at the highest level in terms of moral courage he is a supreme definition.

Robbie Henshaw too had a powerful input in his time on. He brought the physicality when it was most needed in the early stages. No clean breaks per se but continually asking questions of Hadleigh Parkes and Nick Tompkins in midfield.

His deft changes in angle when on the ball kept both Welsh centres locked in, thereby creating that momentary space for Conway and Jacob Stockdale on the outside.

And last but not least the skipper. For the second week running he was in a game in which the referee underperformed. His frustration, and by extension his demeanour as captain in those moments, still leaves much to be desired.

He knows that too, but he is learning on the job and as an out-half and chief orchestrator the added responsibility is not impacting on his game in any negative way. Like the new coach, the new captain is a work in progress but the signs are good.

To be where we are heading on to Twickenham in search of a Triple Crown is almost unimaginable given where we were when we left Japan in psychological tatters.

There is no room for complacency and it's already clear that particular word is very far removed from the former Wigan Warrior's vocabulary.

This win and the substance of it made for a big step in the right direction but on election weekend to borrow from the political lexicon, 'much done but more still to do'.

Online Editors