Ireland young guns grasp chance to seize moment on big stage
Johnny Sexton shows mental strength with outstanding all-round game to secure bonus-point victory over Wales
Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale scores his side’s fourth try past Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny during the Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ireland 37 Wales 27
When Peter O’Mahony appeared to have something to say to Gareth Davies in the immediate aftermath of helping Cian Healy burrow over the line through three Welsh defenders, it was no doubt to inform the cheeky Welsh scrumhalf that Ireland had secured an attacking bonus point.
During the week Davies had said Wales were coming to Dublin looking for one of their own. In the event, they recovered from a 27-13 deficit to move to within a losing bonus point themselves and at 30-23 there was even the possibility of a 3-3 split in the event of a converted Welsh try earning them a bonus point and a draw.
At that juncture, the match points stood at 5-1 to Ireland, yet such were the endless permutations to this rollercoaster of a game, that after Conor Murray’s penalty this changed to 5-0 for Ireland, then back to 5-1 following Steff Evans’ try, whereupon Wales were pressing for a match-winning try with the game’s last play.
Indeed, Wales were in with a real chance of a 5-2 return themselves when working a three-to-one overlap, and had they gone through the hands there was every chance they would have. Gareth Anscombe didn’t need to go for the big skip pass, but Stockdale’s courageous read when picking it off ensured Ireland extracted the maximum haul of five points and denied Wales even a losing bonus point.
Much like Johnny Sexton’s drop goal in that 41-phase drive to victory at the Stade de France, the post-match narrative would have been altogether different. That Sexton could ultimately have been almost a villain, yet finished a hero was indicative of this slightly madcap game. His place-kicking radar was awry, as he missed two straightish penalties and a couple of touchline conversions.
This was compounded by Leigh Halfpenny effectively landing five from five, given his only miss was from inside halfway. That said, Sexton’s first miss when hitting the upright from only slightly to the right of the posts, ended in credit after Scott Williams’ high risk, forward pass gave Ireland the scrum from which they scored their first try.
It says everything about Sexton’s mental strength that his all-round game was outstanding. His long zippy skip pass from right to left in one smooth movement for that opening try by Jacob Stockdale – his seventh in seven Test matches in the seventh minute of the game – was probably the assist of the day.
His passing and running game has rarely been better. Soon, from inside the Irish 22, he was working his wraparound with Bundee Aki’s deft hands and Chris Farrell’s decoy inside line to check Scott Williams, beating the Welsh centre on his outside and offloading inside to Rob Kearney. Then Sexton feinted outside before engineering another line break with an inside ball to Stander.
Possession and territory
Even when trailing 13-5, despite lording possession and territory, Sexton again engineered another line break from deep when wrapping around Peter O’Mahony and, with Rory Best the decoy runner, inviting Keith Earls to hare through the ensuing gap. In the same movement it was Sexton’s pass out the back and a nice transfer from Farrell which put Dan Leavy and Stockdale away, and it was the ensuing pressure which earned a three-pointer by the outhalf.
In the second half, it was Sexton’s deftly delayed pass which enabled Kearney to make another line break with his nice line and offload to the livewire Keith Earls for Murray to hold onto his offload inside at the second attempt in the build up to Leavy battering over from close-range.
When not pulling the strings so expertly, such is Sexton’s competitive zeal that, much to Joe Schmidt’s concern, the outhalf showed up for a phenomenal amount of physical work. Among his tackles was an alert read to stop Ross Moriarty behind his own goal-line, and one of his 15 carries was a scarcely credible pick-and-go two phases before Healy muscled over.
At this point a year ago, Andrew Porter (22), James Ryan (21), Leavy (23), Aki (27), Farrell (24) and Stockdale (21) had never played Test rugby, save for Leavy’s 13 minutes as a replacement against Canada the previous November.
To put this into further context, Porter made his full Six Nations debut, and only his fifth ever start at tighthead. Having been converted from loosehead scarcely 10 months ago, the previous four were in the Pro14 against the Southern Kings, Benetton Treviso and Connacht, as well as Fiji last November. Bearing that in mind, his performance bordered on the ridiculous.
Carries and tackles
With Ryan, like Stockdale a product of the Irish Under-20 World Cup finalists less than two years ago, packing down behind him, Porter helped to lock the scrums, including those which led to Stockdale and Healy tries. He also showed up for nine carries and six tackles.
Ryan himself got through his usual high rate of work with unrelenting accuracy and Leavy, with his ability to latch over the ball, was the biggest thorn in this Welsh side at the breakdown, where they conceded eight penalties. He is simply unmovable over the ball. Leavy also led Ireland’s tackle count with 12 and, in tandem with Aki and Stockdale, accounted for four of Ireland’s five tries.
Farrell was immense; a midfield monster. But this would have been no surprise to those who have witnessed his career climb from Clogher Valley RFC, Campbell College, the Ulster and Irish underage ranks, Ulster, Grenoble and Munster.
His ability to take Murray’s flat passes on the gain line and put Ireland on the front foot – a feature of Ireland’s battery of hard carriers – was augmented by some nice handling, and a host of big plays in both attack and defence, even claiming a restart.
His footwork before contact also typified Ireland’s carrying, enabling them to seek soft shoulders and set up targets for the trademark clearing out which followed. Ireland made 166 carries in the game, and recycled 138 out of 139 rucks. That is hard to contain.
As for Stockdale, he bookended the game with the first and last tries, thus taking his tally to eight in seven games. As with the other young guns, his capacity to seize the moment in big games is beyond his years.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Halfpenny pen 0-3; 7 mins Stockdale try 5-3; 21 mins G Davies try, Halfpenny con 5-10; 31 mins Halpfenny pen 5-13; 36 mins Sexton pen 8-13; 40 (+2) mins Aki try, Sexton con 15-13; (half-time 15-13); 45 mins Leavy try, Sexton con 22-13; 54 mins Healy try 27-13; 62 mins Navidi try, Halfpenny con 27-20; 76 mins Murray pen 30-20; 77 mins S Evans try, Halfpenny con 30-27; 81 mins Stockdale try, Carbery con 37-27.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Chris Farrell (Young Munster/Munster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster). Replacements: Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Healy, Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Earls (both 64 mins), John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Porter (66 mins), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for O’Mahony (67 mins), Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Best (71 mins), Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht) for Toner (75 mins), Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster) for Sexton (76 mins). Not used: Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht).
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Liam Williams (Saracens), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Steff Evans (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Gareth Davies (Scarlets); Rob Evans (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Cory Hill (Dragons), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) (capt), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester). Replacements: Elliot Dee (Dragons) for Owens, Wyn Jones (Scarlets) for R Evans (56-74 mins), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) for Lee (56 mins), Bradley Davies (Ospreys) for Hill, Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) for Moriarty, Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues) for Biggar, George North (Northampton Saints) for L Williams (all 64 mins). Not used: Aled Davies (Scarlets).
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand).