The story of the Six Nations so far: Ireland are contenders again

The story of the Six Nations so far: Ireland are contenders again
Andrew Conway of Ireland dives over to score his side's fourth try despite the tackle of Johnny McNicholl of Wales. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

IRELAND’s defeat of reigning Six Nations champions, Wales, on Saturday, 24-14, at the Aviva Stadium, announced them as contenders for the crown.

The foundation for victory was the the older Ireland players, who had been under pressure to perform.

Coach Andy Farrell had taken flak for choosing Conor Murray at scrum-half over Ulster’s in-form John Cooney, but Murray rewarded Farrell by giving his most assured display in an Irish shirt for two years.

The Munster man was sharp, his passing was crisp, and he looked dangerous snipping around the fringes.

Likewise, Peter O’Mahony gave one of his best performances in some time in the No. 6 shirt.

He is never going to be the world’s greatest ball-carrier — that is just not his game — but he carried more than normal.

He was his imperious best in the lineout, was confrontational at collision time, and his usual nuisance at the breakdown.

It was a tough game to orchestrate for an out-half, but Jonathan Sexton was always to the fore, both in defence and attack, even if he seemed to get on the nerves of fussy French referee, Romaine Poite.

It seems crazy, given he has two man-of-the-match awards in the bank from this competition, but CJ Stander had his critics after last year’s World Cup exit.

It now seems inconceivable to imagine Ireland going into battle without their number one warrior.

Each of these players deserves the plaudits, but Farrell, the new Ireland coach, deserves credit for having faith in them, when most supporters were on the campaign trail for change. Most of us wanted revolution, yours truly included, but Farrell stuck to his guns.

You could argue that Farrell has been fortunate, with Hadleigh Parkes’s knock-on in the act of scoring joining Stuart Hogg’s unforgiveable error last week, at the other end, but as Napoleon once stated: “I would rather have a general who was lucky to one who was good.”

So far, Farrell has been lucky. In order to push on and win a Six Nations Championship, or, dare we say it, a Grand Slam, he has to be good.

It is much too early to mention the words ‘Slam’ and ‘Grand’ in a sentence together, but Saturday’s win has opened up the possibility.

With Italy coming up in round four, Ireland know that if they can win their next game, against England, in Twickenham, then they will, effectively, be one game away from an extremely unexpected Grand Slam bid.

The way England have started this championship, you would have to conclude that this is now a serious opportunity for Ireland.

But Farrell will have to be brave, and flexible, with his selection for England.

One of the main reasons Ireland beat Wales on Saturday was that they won the collisions. They choked Wales for the majority of the 80 minutes.

That you would have barely known that George North was playing is a clear illustration of how Ireland neutralised the Welsh attacking threat.

In that respect, it was a significant turnaround from the previous week’s effort, against Scotland, when the Scots dominated the physical exchanges.

And while it was welcome to see such commitment, you would have to think that to beat Eddie Jones’s England at Twickenham, the effort will have to ramp up considerably.

The Irish back-row of CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, and Peter O’Mahony is a quality threesome, but in international rugby terms, they are not the biggest.

England are always one of the most physically imposing packs, so Farrell may have to shake things up.

Caelan Doris missed the Welsh game, due to the failed head injury assessment he picked up after only four minutes of the Scotland game, but he will be available again for the England match.

Having two big ball-carriers, like Doris and Stander, might be the key to beating England.

This might be harsh on O’Mahony, but if Ireland have ambitions of winning the championship, then this is a step that needs to be taken.

Ireland probably need an upgrade at hooker, as well.

Rob Herring has not been found wanting as Rory Best’s successor, but at almost 30 years of age, the Ulster No. 2 is an unlikely long-term solution.

Just turned 22 years of age, Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher has a much higher ceiling, and it is a matter of when, not if, Farrell decides to make Kelleher Ireland’s number-one No. 2.

While No. 8, CJ Stander, was awarded the man-of-the-match award for the second weekend in a row, it could easily have gone to his Munster teammate Andrew Conway, who was pitch-perfect on the right wing, and scored the bonus-point fourth try.

Conway has been the best back-three player in Ireland for a couple of years now.

It seems ridiculous that he only made his first Six Nations start last week, and is a prime example that Ireland can be too slow in evolving their starting XV.

While we cannot have too many complaints on the back of an impressive win over Wales, form has never been the main consideration when it comes to Irish selection.

A satisfying win over Wales does not change that fact, and it remains a feature of Irish rugby that requires addressing.

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