Sarah O'Dwyer: Sky's the limit for Irish rugby but World Cup will present a bigger challenge

After beating Wales and France, Andy Farrell's side are in pole position to win the Six Nations but the real test comes later this year
Sarah O'Dwyer: Sky's the limit for Irish rugby but World Cup will present a bigger challenge

Hugo Keenan of Ireland is tackled by Thibaud Flament of France. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

IRELAND have only gone and had the absolute dream start to their Six Nations campaign.

Before their first game against Wales two weeks ago, I was asked how Ireland would fare in the competition. Admittedly I reserved judgement until the game began, and then answered that if Ireland continued to play as they had started that game – like men possessed – a triple crown, a tournament, and even maybe a Grand Slam victory could be on the cards.

Ireland brushed aside Wales in that game, winning 34-10 in Cardiff. They had the game effectively won by half time. They started strong. Ireland showed fight. Even in the second half when Wales looked a little bit more dangerous, it never seemed likely they’d win. And, Ireland secured a bonus point.

World number one ranked Ireland looked solid and deserving of that status. Great, but then they had France – ranked second in the world - to face last weekend.

Tickets for the game in the Aviva were next to impossible for people to get their hands on. They were like gold dust – and from what I heard, some resale prices were absolutely crazy.

Tries from Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Andrew Porter and Garry Ringrose helped earn Ireland a first victory in four outings against the French. It brought an end to France’s 14-match winning streak.

Conor Murray 

There have been some major talking points over the course of Ireland’s first two games. The first of which is Conor Murray.

Scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park was ruled out with a hamstring injury prior to the first game of the tournament and Conor Murray replaced him. Some initially questioned this decision by Andy Farrell, but Murray proved any doubters wrong.

Conor Murray of Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's third try against France. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray of Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's third try against France. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Not only was he solid and unflappable against Wales, but he then took to the field against France having got news during the week in the lead-up that his father, Gerry, had been seriously injured while he was cycling. 

As his father remained in hospital, Conor played out of his skin, gunning for the try line.

After the game, about his teammate, captain Johnny Sexton said: “In my eyes, he’s always been a class operator and always been world-class in his position. It just amazes me that he could show up today, be so calm and put in the performance that he did.” And, even when he was taken off, his replacement Craig Casey was very solid.

Was it a red card?

Player welfare is supposed to be front and centre of all decisions made on the field. Referee Wayne Barnes surely has questions to answer for his handling of a first-half incident in the Ireland v France game.

Uini Atonio's high challenge on Rob Herring looked, both in real-time and slow motion, to be very dangerous. Barnes, having reviewed the incident via TMO (television match official) , handed the French player a yellow card. I’m not sure how a sin-bin decision is correct in this scenario.

To make matters worse it took too long for Herring to be sent off for a HIA (head injury assessment) – he looked to be wanting to play on. The fact he never returned to the field of play speaks volumes.

Players who take knocks to the head need to be protected on the pitch. In this case, I don’t think that happened correctly.

World Cup creeping up 

Within the last 12 months, Ireland have defeated the likes of England, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, France, world champions South Africa and Australia.

Their next test will be the third round of the Six Nations against Italy in Rome the weekend after next, before they meet Scotland in Murrayfield. Their final game in the tournament is against England in the Aviva.

While the squad are of course targeting a Grand Slam, attention can’t help but turn to this year’s Rugby World Cup and Ireland’s record of underperforming - something they're certainly not doing in this Six Nations.

The squad is hugely strong, but previous World Cup squads have been too. 

Ireland have been drawn against Romania, Tonga, South Africa and Scotland in Pool B.

The IRFU had aimed for Ireland to reach the semi-finals or better at both the Rugby World Cup in 2019 – which was not achieved – and this year, in 2023.

Here’s hoping this confidence and form lasts and carries through from the Six Nations. This group looks to be the best chance Ireland have ever had at winning a World Cup.

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