Player Ratings: The Farrell factor
OPINION: Following Ireland’s 24-14 win over Wales, we can more properly judge the baby steps of this new Andy Farrell era in charge of Ireland.
Farrell’s Ireland now stand two from two against the Celts, just like Joe Schmidt’s class of 2014 did when he first got his teeth into the ebb and flow of a Six Nations championship. We all know how that particular journey ended, Ireland lifting the trophy on the final round over in Paris, the same venue where their schedule winds up this time around.
Can history repeat itself? There is no reason why it can’t. Farrell had taken flask for mostly depending on the same faces that had flopped in 2019 in Schmidt’s last year in charge, but he is trying to do different things with them and so far it was worked out encouragingly.
Whereas plenty of grit was required to edge the Scots by seven, Ireland were far more expressive second time round versus the Welsh and while there will be annoyance at some of the spills in the opposition 22, they remained patient and eventually secured a deserved four-try bonus point, Andrew Conway dotting down on 75 minutes after earlier efforts by Jordan Larmour, Tadhg Furlong and Josh van der Flier had Ireland comfortably in control.
The crowd reacted accordingly, the decibel levels much higher than the previous Saturday as home supporters cheerily greeted the end of Wales’ eight-match unbeaten run in this tournament stretching back to their last Six Nations visit to Dublin back in 2018.
Liam Heagney rates the Irish players
JORDAN LARMOUR – 7.5
Looked sprightly when clearing his lines early with a catch off a poor pass and then a kick away. Bided his time before getting properly involved, waiting for pick-and-drive to give way to the assist from Conor Murray that invited him to do his magic and dance his way through for his 19th-minute score, incision that the turnstile-like Nick Tompkins won’t like watching on the video review. Got his positioning wrong eight minutes later, though, when Wales created out of nothing for Tomos Williams to score under the posts without a hand being laid on him. Then started the second half with a kick out on the full as Ireland looked to build off halfway scrum possession, but he finished strongly and can take pride that the No15 shirt is beginning to suit him.
ANDREW CONWAY – 8.5
He doesn’t ever seem to see much ball but he is always eager to still have positive impacts. Check out his leap under Johnny Sexton’s early cross-kick, easily beating Josh Adams to a ball that Iain Henderson should have then gathered to continue the move. Held his concentration and bit in neatly on halfway to make one crunching tackle. Then showed prowess with the boot to execute a clearance kick from one 22 to the other. His intelligence was seen in the second-half as well, stepping in on Johnny McNicholl to ruin a Wales attack off penalty advantage when the score was 19-7. Took an excellent catch in the air with ten minutes to go and then capped his day by grabbing the bonus point try, showing more than enough grunt to see off McNicholl.
ROBBIE HENSHAW – 8 (Keith Earls – 7.5)
It was always felt Henshaw had much more to offer in attack operating in the wider channel and his display here added to the opinion that Schmidt was maybe wrong all along by mostly using him as his inside centre before Bundee Aki’s regular inclusion led to a revolving door at 13 that has been mostly injury influenced. He broke the gain line when he could and offered a physicality that was very different to what the injured Garry Ringrose’s brings to this role. An early bang in the second half ended his contribution, however, but replacement Keith Earls brought his guile to the role, keeping the intensity high through to the finish.
BUNDEE AKI – 7.5
Made an important rip on twelve minutes to bring a sudden end to Wales’ first real probe in the Irish 22. Will be annoyed that he bit in low to tackle Alun Wyn Jones, allowing the Welsh skipper the freedom to return a pass to Dan Biggar in the creation of Williams’ try. Redeemed himself minutes later by carrying into heavy traffic to set the ruck prior to Furlong barrelling over for the lead retaking score. Missed a couple of tackles but it mattered not a whit as his attitude was important in ensuring Ireland saw this one through.
JACOB STOCKDALE – 6.5
Fresh from agreeing on promotion to IRFU central contract terms compared to the basic salary that was being footed by Ulster, he started repaying that faith with an immediate kick ahead that forced Wales into conceding a five-metre scrum, pressure that came to nought with Cian Healy conceding at the set-piece. Had a poor game by his high standards last weekend versus Scotland and his indifferent form was evident when his second kick ahead was tame by comparison. Was then robbed by Dan Biggar on the floor after a big canter into the Wales 22 seemed to have Ireland poised to pounce. Kept plugging away despite infrequent involvement.
JOHNNY SEXTON – 8.5
He might have started his repertoire with a teasing early cross-kick for Conway to compete for, but Sexton is more sleight of hand these days under Farrell than boot to ball as witnessed by the gutsy manner he ran possession from a scrum not far from the Irish line near the end of the first half, a decision rewarded by Conway’s subsequent ground-gaining kick. He scuffed his first attempt off the tee but didn’t miss after that. He was also regularly in the ear of referee Romain Poite, often things didn’t go Ireland’s way such as when the pack was halted at a 16th-minute maul a metre form the line and then arguing for a forward pass in the lead up to the Wales try. Kept Ireland on the front foot early in the second half and then played a key part in helping the defensive stand that kept Wales at bay around the hour mark. Lasted 71 minutes before giving way to Ross Byrne.
CONOR MURRAY – 8
Found his flow better than against the Scots. His box kicking kept the Welsh our of Irish territory during the first-half battle and his snapped pass gave the attack an increased tempo than it had seven days earlier. He cannily picked his moment. See how he allowed the forwards plough on with their pick-and-drive before making the perfect intervention to pass clear and allow Larmour to strut his stuff to the try line. It’s still felt Ireland, in the long run, might have been better served by giving John Cooney a start versus Scotland and then allowing Murray take care of business against the Welsh but it was what it was and we now have a Murray returning to some form and a Cooney that is unproven at this level after just a seven-minute cameo here off the bench.
CIAN HEALY – 6 (Dave Kilcoyne – 7)
Not an outing for him to remember with much fondness. It started problematically, penalised at the first scrum after Ireland has secured a put-in five metres out off Stockdale’s kick and chase. His best work was in and around the breakdown, clearing out when necessary while his first-half tackle count was pretty decent. However, he was replaced by Dave Kilcoyne on 51 who offers way more a ball-carrying threat. Depending on the way Farrell’s Ireland want to play, there could be a debate soon on whether Healy should remain the starter as Kilcoyne’s energy is an attractive alternative.
ROB HERRING – 7
He is a busy player. For someone who doesn’t have mooch experience at Test level, he deserves kudos for having the nerve to throw short to a feet-on-the-ground James Ryan to instigate the second half maul that resulted in Josh van der Flier’s try. That took guts and was the type of variation rarely if ever seen when Rory Best was in charge of the darts. There were moments of inaccuracy too, mind, some iffy handling ruining an attack in the 22 with 15 minutes remaining, his final act before giving way to Ronan Kelleher. Herring even came up with a lineout steal, loitering out the back to snap up an overthrow. Should feel like he is a very different player how after two starts than he was coming into the championship.
TADHG FURLONG – 8.5
Wasn’t happy with the concession by Healy of a penalty at the first scrum five metres. After all, this was a Wales scrum that has struggled against Italy last week. Got to work on the opposition set-piece after that and it was his work that forced the collapse that gave Ireland the penalty advantage that resulted in the tighthead himself blasting over the line to score after Aki carried to a ruck. Was defensively excellent after the break when Ireland soaked a load of pressure at 19-7. He executed a brilliant rip on 54 minutes and his face was a picture of jubilation when a penalty was won at a Wales scrum nine minutes later. Lasted 67 minutes before Andre Porter got a run.
IAIN HENDERSON – 6
Is very much the Robin in his second row partnership with James ‘Batman’ Ryan. Continued to do a heck of a lot of ugly, unseen work that can get overshadowed by his obvious errors – his lack of agility to take a flap back by Conway and getting held up in an early carry by two Welsh backs rows in the opening exchanges highlighting some of the frustrations that can take away from what he does best. Played 67 minutes before Devin Toner closed it out.
JAMES RYAN – 8.5
Found himself eclipsed and lost in Alun Wyn Jones’ pocket eleven months ago when Wales clinched the Grand Slam, but he was the enforcer here and he enjoyed this payback. There were some kinks – he was penalised at a ruck for holding on on 22 minutes in the Welsh 22 and had lineout ball dislodged from him by Jake Ball, but the calibre of his overall performance impressed. He has nerves of steel judging by the canny linnet move pulled off for the van der Flier try and his industry culminated in him being his team’s top tackler and his pack’s most frequent ball carrier.
PETER O’MAHONY – 8.5
Similar to last week when he came off the bench after five minutes, he carried himself as if he had a point to prove and ensure he won’t be doing bench duty again for quite some time. Was at his aggressive, nuisance best in taking the Welsh back row on in a way that Ireland failed to do last year in Cardiff. He might not have been quick enough with his cover tackle on Biggar in the lead-up to the first Welsh try but there was a trademark lineout steal in the second and his contribution around the field stood up to scrutiny. Gave was for the debut-making Max Deegan on 71 minutes.
JOSH VAN DER FLIER – 7.5
Was tested to the brim again this Saturday but unlike against the Scots, this was a more rewarding experience for him. His diligence was best seen in how he managed to squirrel the ball over the line for his try after hitting the ground just short of the target. You would have liked to have seen him carry more ball but clear-out was more his thing, freeing up the flow to enable others to play.
CJ STANDER – 8.5
Another sponsor’s man of the match award was bagged here despite an initial slower start than against the Scots. It takes some doing to subdue the Welsh back row and Stander was to the heart of the dominance that hugely influenced the outcome. As with last weekend, he was supreme over the ball and first-half poach penalties. H also joined forced with O’Mahony to propel Furlong over the line for his score and his impact positively continued in the second half. If there is a concern it would be that he didn’t top the chart for ball carrying by the Irish forwards. Then again, the reduction in this number is a reflection in how differently Ireland are now trying to play under Farrell.
By Liam Heagney, Rugbypass