Next Saturday’s rendezvous with France in Paris already looms as a key match, perhaps even the decisive one, and even in the immediate aftermath of the 29-7 bonus-point win over Wales it was clear that the Irish players were already thinking along those lines.
This Irish team is in a good place, and will arrive in Paris on the back of nine wins in succession, but Andrew Porter for one clearly realises that this will be the test of tests.
“We’re not looking at that nine-in-a-row, you have to take everything as it comes. They’re an incredible team with the players they have but we’re definitely more than capable to turn them over in their home patch.
“That’s the nature of this competition. It’s nearly knock-out rugby, it’s like the semi-final or final in terms of getting maximum points. It’s really important to build momentum and today was really good in that sense.”
Along with the emergence of Rónan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan, the return of Caelan Doris, and Porter's seamless return to loosehead under Paul O'Connell's demanding and detailed watch, the Irish pack has been infused with a fresh, young and physical dynamic. This has provided the set-piece bedrock for much of this winning run and there's more to come.
“From the autumn internationals, we set a good standard and that was our benchmark really, so we have to keep improving on that,” admitted Porter.
“You can’t stagnate, otherwise other teams are going to overtake you, so it’s something we have to keep trying to push week on week. It’s about improving from this game too because bigger challenges lie ahead.”
They’re skillful ball-players too, abilities which have been accommodated in Ireland’s varied attacking game, where anyone can step in as first receiver and have the option to carry hard, move the ball on or pull it out the back.
“It’s the way the coaches have designed things in terms of our style of play. It helps each player bring the best of their abilities to the table and we’re not confined to a strict playing style. It allows every player, not just in the pack, to express themselves and showcase all their ability.”
It’s also demanding more of them.
“Yeah, definitely. It’s another level up from provincial rugby and a different style of play. It’s about being adaptable and honing in on your skills in your passing game, and then obviously the set-piece as a forward really.”
Even O’Connell might have been privately fairly pleased with how the Irish set-pieces fared against the Welsh pack. After losing their first lineout, Ireland won their remaining 15 and their scrum earned three penalties.
However, France will be an altogether different proposition in both departments next Saturday, and although they conceded a couple of penalties, they also forced a couple in gradually imposing their scrum and ditto their catch-and-drive from lineouts, where they also had a 16 from 17 return against Italy.
“There were a few scrums going down here and there but on a whole, it’s another benchmark you have set for yourself,” said Porter of the Irish scrum against Wales. “We have to improve every week and we know we’re going to have a huge challenge in France given that traditional French teams are set-piece dominated. We will really have to sharpen that up for next week and bring our best.”
Porter also adds to the team’s many threats over the ball at the breakdown, something which has to be a constant work-on given differing referee interpretations.
“It’s definitely something that you always have to adapt with because it’s a different picture with different referees and their different interpretations. It’s about being adaptable and not just burying your head into things, it’s making the right decisions at the right times. The Leinster and Ireland coaches have both worked with me on that.”
Every team benefits from the emergence of talented new players, all the more so when the player hits the Test ground running like Mack Hansen did. As was the case after landing in Galway, the easy-going, Aussie-born Irish winger has quickly made an impression both with supporters and team-mates alike.
“He’s a brilliant lad on and off the pitch,” said Porter. “We’ve seen how well he is playing with Connacht so it’s fully deserved that he’s here. He’s great off the pitch, getting to know him last week and hopefully he continues his great form in this team. You saw what he can do today, he’s an incredible ball player and he’s just brilliant really.”
In all of this, of course, a sterner examination awaits for Hansen too and France, of course, will have serious designs on the title as well, which sets up a mouth-watering showdown.
“The message is that we’re going to review this game but we have to shift our focus quickly on to France because we know that watching them and their current form, how dangerous they are and the calibre of players they have. It’s something where we will really have to bring our best to Paris,” admitted Porter.
“It’s a tough place to go but thinking back even to 2018 when we went over there and Johnny kicked that drop goal when the clock was in the red. Thinking back to those days, you want those days again. We will be chomping at the bit to go over to Paris.”