Six Nations report card: Ireland impress and set themselves up for tilt at fourth Grand Slam
After two rounds of the Six Nations, the competition takes a break, allowing us to take stock and provide a report card for each team. Last up, it’s tournament pacesetters Ireland.
Quite simply, Andy Farrell’s men went into the competition as favourites and they have more than justified that tag. It is the not just the results but the manner in which they have played that has impressed all onlookers, taking them to the top of the table with a perfect 10 points.
The match with Wales first up looked a potential nail-biter, given Warren Gatland’s return, but it proved to be anything but as the Irish wiped the floor with the hosts in the first half. They were mightily impressive, going 27-3 ahead at the break thanks to a pack which consistently made it over the gain line.
Farrell’s charges would end up claiming a 34-10 triumph, setting them up nicely for the encounter with defending champions France. In a match billed as a possible title decider, the two sides put on an incredible spectacle, with the first half in particular one of the greatest in the Six Nations’ history.
Les Bleus played a full part in the contest, producing memorable moments such as Damian Penaud’s score and Antoine Dupont’s try-saver, but Ireland were just that little bit better in most departments.
They ended up sealing a 32-19 win to leave them top of the table and set them up nicely for the final three matches. The Irishmen face a potentially difficult match against an in-form Scotland at Murrayfield in Round Four, but their path otherwise looks relatively clear to a fourth Grand Slam.
No individual has done more in the Six Nations so far than Caelan Doris. Since making his Test debut in 2020, the Leinster number eight has always impressed, but he has now elevated his game to a world-class standard.
Doris comfortably outplayed France’s brilliant back-row Gregory Alldritt in their Round Two encounter at the Aviva Stadium, with his ability to make ground in the tight unmatched. The 24-year-old staggeringly ran for over 100 metres against Les Bleus, adding to the 45 he made in their opener in Cardiff.
Added to the powerhouse’s carrying ability is his athleticism, skill set and defence. He can roam in the wider channels and has excellent hands, as evidenced by his sublime off-load for Garry Ringrose’s score, while also being a nuisance without the ball.
At the moment, Doris is the complete player and looks a shoo-in for the player of the championship award. He is obviously not the only one to impress in this outstanding Ireland team, with a plethora of individuals putting their names forward, but the Leinster star is certainly standing the tallest at the moment.
It is difficult to pinpoint a player in a side which has received widespread praise. From Hugo Keenan to Johnny Sexton and, up front, the likes of Dan Sheehan and Josh van der Flier, all have had their performances extolled.
A few, however, have perhaps gone slightly under the radar. Stuart McCloskey and Conor Murray have done their jobs admirably, perhaps without the recognition they deserve, but it ultimately came down to two players: Finlay Bealham and Peter O’Mahony.
Connacht tighthead Bealham has done excellently in the absence of the world-class Tadhg Furlong, providing set-piece stability and energy in the loose, but we have gone for Munsterman O’Mahony. With the rise of Gavin Coombes, there has been the almost-inevitable talk of shifting Doris to blindside and bringing the 25-year-old into the first choice XV ahead of the World Cup, but the experienced flanker is undroppable in our minds.
For starters, he provides real balance to that back-row, with his lineout work and sheer nuisance factor at the breakdown a valuable commodity. He also hits a lot of rucks and makes his tackles, dovetailing nicely with Van der Flier and Doris. O’Mahony remains an elite player and we will simply not stand for any talk of him being moved on.
There has been plenty to choose from but we have already touched on it and it was Ireland’s final try to seal the game against France.
Keenan’s score was also memorable with Bealham, who provided the last pass, stepping in for Furlong and showing that it doesn’t matter who plays, they all have the ability to execute what is required of them.
However, Ringrose’s effort typified what this side is about. Ireland had been the better team in the second period but France were hanging in there, with only a converted try separating the two sides going into the final 10 minutes. Farrell’s men could have folded under the weight of expectation but they kept their composure, were patient with ball in hand and duly landed the killer blow.
As ever, their ruck retention was excellent, going through the phases and tiring out the French defence. The number was at 18 when Doris took the ball from the base and fired out a pass to his outside centre. Ringrose still had plenty to do but he handed off Matthieu Jalibert and scampered over to secure a decisive victory for the Irish in their search for a first title since 2018.
They say patience is a virtue, and it really is with this Ireland team. Since the Joe Schmidt era, they have always been comfortable with ball in hand and confident in their ability to go through the phases, and it remains their biggest strength.
Farrell has kept that basic structure and it is a big reason as to why they have become the number one side in the world. What the rugby league great has perhaps added is a bit more freedom to try things when it is on and use that vast skill set a lot of the players have.
Equally, they have been helped by having a bit more ballast up front, which gives them that constant supply of front foot ball. Doris has already been spoken about enough but Dan Sheehan is another great find, while his back up, Ronan Kelleher, is also explosive in the loose. They are very different players to the great Rory Best, but their games certainly suit Ireland’s attacking game.
There are very few, if any, weaknesses in this Irish side. While certain facets might not be top-drawer, they are still being performed incredibly efficiently, leading to opposition teams being unable to take advantage of it.
Set-piece, and particularly the scrum, is certainly somewhere the other sides would have been targeting following the absence of Tadhg Furlong, but Bealham has rarely taken a backward step. Even in the Autumn Nations Series, against the best front-row in the world in the Springboks, they managed to turn a perceived weakness into a strength. It was reminiscent of the great 2011-15 All Blacks side, in that respect.
As a result, there can only be one real concern for Ireland and that is on the injury front. With Bealham stepping in well for Furlong, McCloskey becoming a reliable performer at centre in the absence of Robbie Henshaw and Conor Murray providing little drop-off with Jamison Gibson-Park currently out, they appear to have built great depth. But does there come a point where it affects the team’s cohesion?
Tadhg Beirne is the latest to succumb to injury, with an ankle issue ruling him out of the Six Nations. At some point it may catch up with them, especially if Johnny Sexton goes down, but at the moment they have impressively overcome every challenge they have faced.
In 2019, a World Cup year, Ireland struggled despite a wonderful 2018, and there were concerns that 2023 would go the same the way, but this side are in a much better place.
While they are already an elite outfit, there are still improvements they could make, namely at set-piece, and there is always the question of how they could deal without star playmaker Johnny Sexton. Ross Byrne, however, has impressed this season and was excellent after coming on against France, suggesting that he has very much matured as a player.
Elsewhere, they don’t need to worry, with the age profile of the squad looking good and players still improving. There will always be an element of concern and that a drop-off is going to happen heading towards the World Cup, considering what has happened in the past, but we can’t see that arising this time around.
Ordinarily, Ireland’s main challenge would come from England, but they are no great shakes at the moment and, with that game being at home, the Red Rose are unlikely to present a stern enough challenge.
Scotland are therefore their biggest threat for the Grand Slam, given their impressive wins over the Red Rose and Wales, but Farrell’s men just look too strong for everyone at the moment.
Pretty much all areas of their game are in fine working order and we expect them to maintain their position in the table and finish in first place, completing a Grand Slam in the process.
Nothing has really changed from our pre-tournament prediction, with the only surprise coming in the sheer excellence of their performances. They haven’t really missed a beat, despite suffering injuries to some key players, and therefore deserve an A+.
READ MORE: Six Nations report card: Inconsistent England still a work in progress under new regime
The article Six Nations report card: Ireland impress and set themselves up for tilt at fourth Grand Slam appeared first on Planetrugby.com.