Player Ratings: Irish dominance
OPINION: Instead of hosting reigning world champions South Africa this weekend as was planned long ago, the second weekend of November 2020 for Ireland kicked off their campaign in the filler Nations Cup.
Struggling Wales were the visitors and while Ireland took an age to enjoy the scoreboard supremacy their dominance deserved, they will go away satisfied with the manner of their 32-9 victory against an opposition that didn’t ask many questions.
With Ireland bulling following their Six Nations title-ending defeat to France on October 31, they were intent on putting one over Wales and they eventually came away with a comfortable win, tries from Quinn Roux and James Lowe decorating a deluge of points from the kicking tee by Johnny Sexton, Billy Burns and Conor Murray.
But for the Welsh scramble defence, Ireland would have been out of sight at the interval instead of being just 16-6 ahead following an opening half where Sexton departed injured.
The Irish pack dominance, where breakdown and set-piece went their way, was less visible in the early stages of the second half and Wales managed to give themselves an unexpected sniff at getting in touch, cutting the margin at one stage to seven and then spurning another penalty to bring it down to seven on a second occasion.
However, the hope was that the energy-sapping pressure Ireland had generally applied in the first half would take its toll in the long run and it did in the final flourish, 13 points scored to give the final result the reflection it deserved.
Here is how Liam Heagney rated the Ireland players:
15. HUGO KEENAN – 6: Tricky evening for the newcomer. He was initially switched to the right wing pre-game following two outings on the left and was then shunted into an eleventh-hour start at fullback after Jacob Stockdale reported lame. Experienced an awkward period early in the second half, conceding two penalties, but he stuck at it.
14. ANDREW CONWAY – 6: A late call-up to start in place of Stockdale who had been hammered for his flakiness in the loss to France, Conway’s two October appearances had seen limited involvement as play usually occurred elsewhere. It started the same here but he worked his way into the action and would have had a pair of late first-half tries but for Josh Adams tackles. Showed his athleticism with his catch of a 64th-minute defensive bomb with the score poised at 19-9.
13. CHRIS FARRELL – 6: A first start since Ireland’s RWC horror versus the Japanese in Shizuoka, he will have enjoyed the opening half in particular as the variety in the backline play resulted in regular involvement. Was eager to carry and he combined well with Robbie Henshaw in a partnership we need to see more of.
12. ROBBIE HENSHAW – 7: A rare outing at No12 given how Kiwi Bundee Aki has owned the jersey since qualifying under residency in November 2017. He was excellently energetic and was good value for the 71 minutes he played before giving way to Keith Earls. Was at fault for the opening Wales points but illustrated how encouraging his performance was by soon earning three points back with another bruising tackle. Attacked the line well.
11. JAMES LOWE – 7: The eleventh foreigner to be capped by Ireland since 2012 under the controversial 36-month residency rule, he put his record of 33 tries in 49 Leinster matches to good use by rounding off a decent first showing with an 80th-minute Test try. Came in for some unruly treatment from the Welsh and suffered some early errors but he rebounded positively.
10. JOHNNY SEXTON – 6: His credibility as skipper took a serious dent in the wake of that infamous glare towards the coaches’ box in Paris, but he played well here for the 29 minutes he was on. There was the concession of an early penalty for going high but he ran his backline positively to help Ireland be 13-3 ahead when he left with a hamstring issue that will require a Saturday scan. Billy Burns took over for his debut but injury claimed him as well on 65 minutes.
9. JAMISON GIBSON-PARK – 7: A career sub who had started just eleven of 67 Super Rugby/Champions Cup games, it was a bold move from Andy Farrell to give the Kiwi a start after just two bench cameos. He began with two box kicks in the opening three minutes but we then saw the other aspects of his play. His passing was generally slick and he made an important break in the second half to ensure Ireland got three points from a period of pressure when the result was still uncertain.
1. CIAN HEALY – 7: He will have enjoyed this, his pack enjoying dominance in contrast to how things evolved in Paris 13 days earlier. Played his part in the scrum dominance and was physical around the park. Held up over the line on 51 minutes and gave way to Ed Byrne eight minutes later.
2. RONAN KELLEHER – 7: Generally viewed as the better long term bet at hooker compared to Rob Herring, he snapped up an early Wales overthrow while loitering at the tail. There were a few issues with the Irish lineout but he was busy elsewhere, apparently topping the Irish tackle count and staying strong for 65 minutes before Dave Heffernan entered.
3. ANDREW PORTER – 8: Won a penalty at the first Wales scrum and repeated the dose quickly after to enable Sexton to put Ireland ahead on ten minutes. Gave up one scrum penalty but knew he had his job done with the sight of Rhys Carre being replaced for on 39 minutes before a scrum five metres out. Lasted 65 minutes before Finlay Bealham was introduced.
4. QUINN ROUX – 6: A late call up to start in place of Iain Henderson, you worried if he had brought the necessary level of physicality as he was driven back in the Welsh 22 on one occasion when he carried, but he stuck at it and finished his try chance excellently, dipping under Will Rowlands on 23 minutes.
5. JAMES RYAN – 8: A bit of a mixed bag in the sense that he endured some deflating first-half errors, a no release when tackled and then a soft knock-on. But his physicality held sway and while there was a points-costing high tackle in the second half, he ensured Alun Wyn Jones wasn’t much of a factor.
6. PETER O’MAHONY – 8: Would have been foaming at the mouth at being only a sub for the recent two games and he quickly illustrated this by getting involved in handbags with Jones. There was an excellent lineout steal on 14 minutes and he continued on from there, his no-nonsense attitude ensuring the margin of victory became what it did.
7. JOSH VAN DER FLIER – 6: The chop tackling expert would have felt a bit of a spare part during the opening half with Ireland so dominant and owning the ball in a type of display that would have been more suited to the more ball-friendly Will Connors.
8. CAELAN DORIS – 8: Started well, deflecting a Wales lineout into Irish hands and then playing the perfect foil for Sexton to get away for the early try chance spoiled by Lowe’s fumble. His willingness to keep going at the Welsh and his durability at the breakdown was entertaining to see and he crowned his athleticism when he blocked a clearance kick on 51 minutes from Rhys Webb, raced after the ball and nearly put Healy in. Given the sponsor’s man of the match award.
By Liam Heagney, @RugbyPass