Two wins from two and ten victories achieved from the last twelve championship outings. And we all thought that the Irish rugby team were in a bad place!
After the let down that was 2019 all eyes were on Eddie Jones’ England as odds on favourites for the championship while their nearest competitors all changed management teams and started a new period of rebuilding. Outside of the ‘four proud provinces’ not much has been said about the Irish challenge this year, while as ever in your own back garden, you can’t turn a sweet in your mouth without someone giving critique.
The back row. Cooney v Murray. Is Sexton fit? Centre partnerships. Would Ireland play with a more expansive attacking style? Subplot after subplot was discussed as the nation waited eagerly for the 1st February and the 2020 championship opener against Scotland. The Scots had their own issues as they rolled into Dublin in what was normally a home banker. After all Ireland easily dispatched the Scots in Japan at the World Cup a few months earlier.
But this one turned out to be a totally different affair. Scotland played with great confidence as they threw everything they had at the home team. Despite a beautifully executed try from Sexton in the opening quarter, Scotland came roaring back and were almost camped in the Irish ‘red zone’ for much of the half. A similar pattern continued for much of the game as new captain Johnny Sexton scored all of Ireland’s points in a 19-12 victory. But the game will be remembered for Stuart Hogg’s handling error when he spilled the ball at the last second when the try looked like a formality.
Any ideas that we would see a different approach from Ireland went out the window after barely four minutes of play. Caelan Doris was making his presence felt in those opening minutes hitting ten rucks and having won a turnover. With so many looking forward to seeing the new No 8 and CJ Stander on the blindside of the scrum, it was a major disappointment to see the debutant go off with a blow to the head so soon.
Peter O’Mahony and Stander’s positions in the team have been under much scrutiny for some time but the two Munster stalwarts lead a dogged Irish performance to victory by putting some major hits and making their presence known time and time again. A late turnover by Stander helping to seal the win and also the man of the match award.
Scotland lacked firepower and killer instinct in the final third and Ireland, Hogg’s chance aside, were able to deal with anything that was thrown at them. It was a tighter and more nervy afternoon that many had predicted, but the win was claimed and it was on to Wales.
One thing that everyone agreed on was that Ireland would need to up the performance levels when Wales arrived at the Aviva Stadium for Round 2 at the weekend. And didn’t Ireland just do that!
This week Ireland got on the front foot from the very first minute and pinned Wales back into their own ‘22’. Unable to turn their opening dominance into scores, Ireland kept coming back at Wales as a formidable Welsh pack were able to turn over Ireland at the breakdown. But it was clear to see in the opening exchanges that Ireland were keen to play with a bit more attacking flair as they looked to offload at every opportunity.
Conor Murray rolled back the years and delivered a virtuoso performance with razor sharp passing and effective box kicking. Andrew Conway has been the in form Irish winger for a year now and another rock solid performance was awarded with a bonus point clinching try. Robbie Henshaw looked fresh and hungry before retiring through a failed HIA while Sexton looks to be excelling with the added pressures of being team captain. Up front Tadhg Furlong is back in top scrummaging form, while CJ Stander just seems to be doing absolutely everything around the park as he claimed a second man of the match award. Josh Van Der Flier is also quickly developing into a top class openside.
For the second week in a row Ireland saw their luck come through when just like Stuart Hogg the week before, Welsh centre Hadleigh Parkes lost control of the ball at the last second. But in modern sport you make your own luck. Again the Irish defence was water tight and a game defining penalty scrum win in the 63rd minute was a huge turning point.
So, with a bonus point win in the bag and a newly found bounce in everyone’s step, it sets it up nicely for a crack at the ‘oul enemy’ at Twickenham in two weeks time.
BRING IT ON!