Tuesday 20 November 2018

Green machine ease through the gears in Cardiff carnival

Ireland 50 Canada 7

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, goes over to score his side's third try, despite the efforts of Matt Evans and Gordon McRorie
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, goes over to score his side's third try, despite the efforts of Matt Evans and Gordon McRorie
Jared Payne of Ireland powers forward
Jared Payne of Ireland attempts to break through
Ireland's Paul O' Connell surges forward
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If the IRFU ever considered hiring another country's national stadium for the afternoon, for a party based around a rugby match, then this is how it would look. Never before have we been in the Millennium Stadium for a Test match where the build-up was so benign, so devoid of tension. True, the opposition were wearing red shirts but Canada are as far removed from Wales geographically as they are on the rugby front.

When after almost half-an-hour man-of-the-match Johnny Sexton touched down in the corner, and referee Glen Jackson referred it upstairs to the TMO, the crowd booed in the way kids howl at the baddie in the Christmas panto.

And on 36 minutes, when the bonus point was sorted with a finish from Dave Kearney to a move which looked like it had another couple of phases scheduled if needed, Irish supporters looked at each other with the kind of satisfaction reserved for the uber-confident.

Which of course they were, for by then any hint had been dispelled of the World Cup getting off to a spluttering start. Rather the green machine was moving through the gears, and their supporters - who made up about 90 per cent of the 68,523, which was close to a full house - were enjoying the ride.

Canada had opened with heaps of physicality and resolve. When they lost captain Jamie Cudmore to the bin on 18 minutes, they drained, alarmingly. Ireland's return of 19 points in the 10 minutes Cudmore was on his backside - he had handled the ball in a ruck close in - was a model of efficiency. If taking your chances is the mantra at this level, and your opponents lose a man, then you need to capitalise. The only way it could have been any better was if Sexton had nailed the touchline conversion to his own try - the third while the Canada captain was indisposed.

By half-time the score was 29-0. There had been a tense period in the last few plays of the half, ending with a disallowed try for Canada after outhalf Nathan Hirayama had batted the ball forward when Canada looked like they would worsen Ireland's 'bad stat' department: tries conceded. That they didn't was a relief that went beyond the context of this game.

Similarly, early in the second half when Paul O'Connell was binned for what was deemed deliberate offside, Ireland were on-message about ramping up their effort. To their credit, Canada never stopped chasing the game - it's a national trait - and on 68 minutes, by which stage they were trailing 36-0, DTH van der Merwe intercepted an attempted chip ahead from Jared Payne to race 50 metres and score. It was fitting that the winger should get the score for he always looked like he could do damage if given the space.

Typical of the nature of the contest, however, was the way Rob Kearney's try - Ireland's sixth, on 73 minutes - unfolded. Canada were hammering away in the corner of Ireland's 22 only to turn the ball over, and suffer at the far end after Earls set him up with a good run embellished by a great scoring pass.

By the finish the try count was 7-1, and while the video review will throw up chances missed, it was a healthy return. And it included lots of healthy, vital signs. The set-piece was untroubled; the defence was willing and mostly very good - especially the combination of Payne and Luke Fitzgerald in midfield - and there were a few outstanding displays.

Sexton looked happy, which is always good, and Iain Henderson looked like a man who would be one of the first on the Test team-sheet if there was a Lions tour leaving next week. His carrying is the obvious part of his game, but the grief he causes opponents when they have the ball is almost as valuable.

Conor Murray was outstanding too, as was Peter O'Mahony in a backrow that combined really well. And the sight of Cian Healy getting back on the field, for the first time since his neck operation in May, was a huge relief.

Most of all, though, Ireland showed that they had more to their game than we've seen of late. The Six Nations sign-off, against Scotland, opened a window on how well this team can play, but it was firmly shut in the warm-ups that preceded this tournament. It's open again. A good start, a clean bill of health, and lots to look forward to en route to the deciding game in this pool, against France. The atmosphere for that will be the difference between an afternoon at the circus and a bare-knuckle contest. We have a couple of outings to go before that one kicks off, but already your finger is poised over the fast-forward button.

Scorers - Ireland: 50 (29) (Sexton try, pen, 3 cons; O'Brien, Henderson, D Kearney, Cronin, R Kearney, Payne try each; Madigan 3 cons). Canada: 7 (0)(van der Merwe try; Hirayama con)

Ireland: R Kearney; D Kearney, J Payne, L Fitzgerald, K Earls; J Sexton (I Madigan 56), C Murray (E Reddan 66); J McGrath (C Healy 61), R Best (S Cronin 61), M Ross (N White 61), I Henderson, P O'Connell (capt)(yc 43-53)(D Ryan 70), P O'Mahony, J Heaslip, S O'Brien (C Henry 63).

Canada: M Evans (L Underwood ht); J Hassler (C Trainior ht) C Hearn, N Blevins, DTH van der Merwe; N Hirayama, G McRorie (P Mack 48); H Buydens (D Sears Duru 48), R Barkwill (B Piffero 63), D Wooldridge (A Tiedeman 66), B Beukeboom, J Cudmore (capt)(yc 18-28), K Gilmour, A Carpenter, J Moonlight.

Referee: G Jackson (NZ).

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