The night before this epic Test match, where every man, woman and child shoehorned into Lansdowne Road will treasure the memory, we were mansplaining to some Ukrainian friends the reasons behind Ireland’s current stellar rating.
ith respect to Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, Kyiv is not a stronghold of the game, but that didn’t dilute their cynicism. “Number one?” they asked. “And New Zealand …?”
Fair enough. They knew enough about the game to grasp that since rugby became a genuine international pastime, the Kiwis have been its premium product. So nothing illustrated better Ireland’s position at the top of the world rugby tree than the summer tour down there, which changed everything.
But yesterday was a straight shoot-out between the team many think to be the best in the world and the team ranked best in the world. Whatever way you look at it, Ireland are undisputed on their perch. The rankings are not wrong.
This game might well go down as the Caelan Doris show. Earlier in the week, we stumbled across an Off The Ball interview with Brian O’Driscoll, a man vastly experienced in the media game, who understands clearly the dangers of hanging a bunch of medals around a player’s neck and the weight they can bring. He waded in, though. We’re paraphrasing only slightly here: “He has it all,” the former captain said of Doris.
We’re not sure if he referred to what’s under the bonnet — but to add to all the other bits and pieces, the No 8 has an engine that runs and runs. With 15 minutes to go, and a score in it, the signs of wear and tear were everywhere across two teams who had virtually emptied their benches by then. On a road rammed with potholes and black spots and any number of threats, that must have looked like a never-ending journey. Doris just kicked on.
With Ireland having settled in the blue half of the field, they were doing their best to hang on to the ball without opening any doors for France. In circumstances like that, the decision to carry into contact is fraught with fear of a turnover. To have someone like Doris, with the energy and leg drive to carry safely, is the equivalent of a heavily-armed security detail for your walkabout in a dodgy part of town. There is not another No 8 in the world you’d rather have in your team.
The importance of that was massive, given the way the game was balanced. It doesn’t look like that now, given the final score, but this bonus-point win was nip and tuck until nine minutes from time, when Garry Ringrose scooted into the in-goal area and headed for the posts, treasuring every step.
At the very end of the first half, for example, Johnny Sexton had the look of a frustrated soul when he took three points off the tee to give Ireland a 22-16 lead.
Look at it from the French perspective: they had conceded three tries when it could readily have been five; they had lost a player — Uini Atonio — for 10 minutes when he could have been gone for good, a period in which they scored three points and conceded seven; and still, they were within a score? That combination would encourage you to think someone upstairs was doing their best to keep you in the hunt.
And what a thrilling pursuit it was. When you’re not wincing at rugby’s brutality, sometimes, instead of broken bodies, we get broken play. When it’s at the top level, with very skilful players paid heaps for their time and effort, that little theatre where they have to read their partners’ body language and ad-lib at the drop of a hat, it’s truly a special game.
Of many moments pulled from the top drawer, a couple will linger: Damian Penaud’s grace under pressure when motoring back to deal with a ball in behind him. He looked over his shoulder and should have been alarmed by the sight of Josh van der Flier drooling at the prospect of a hearty meal, but instead, the wing calmly tapped the ball to pop it up and took off.
Between himself and Ethan Dumortier, France have men who are extremely hard to put down. That struggle to stick to the tackled player was a constant battle for Ireland.
Then, early in the second half, with Ireland producing the type of patient build-up that marked their success in the series against New Zealand, Doris produced an offload under pressure that should earn him immediate membership of the Magic Circle. Thibaud Flament’s to the irrepressible Antoine Dupont a few minutes later was in the same executive class.
Ireland were wiped by France in the offload stakes — 12-6 — but aside from average lineouts, it was the only place they trailed. Had they been better in the last five metres of the field, this would have been a landslide, the effects of which on French heads would have been interesting in this World Cup year.
There were positive implications for that gig for Ireland as well. You could be forgiven for thinking Andy Farrell wants to give Declan Kidney a run for his money. It was Farrell’s predecessor, once removed, who cornered the market on making a triumph out of a crisis. If Kidney woke up on match day in the team hotel to find half his starting XV laid low with dysentery, he would declare it a sign from above about the value of having back-ups.
In this case, however, the opportunity, as Farrell likes to classify injuries, is twofold: first, there is the game-time afforded those who might be called on again in similar circumstances in the World Cup; then, there is the chance to identify and fix the gremlin in the soft-tissue system.
In August, Ireland will play warm-ups against Italy and England. Not the time to have pinging hamstrings as the soundtrack. So, if they can get to the end of this Six Nations with the soft-tissue problem solved, then, fair enough, it can be classed as an ill wind that at least blew someone some good.
Finlay Bealham and Tom O’Toole, for example, have made solid ground in Tadhg Furlong’s absence, though with only five scrums in 80 minutes, that bit of grunt was denied them. It would have been helpful, too, for Caolin Blade to get a look in, but credit to Conor Murray for showing up for work in very difficult circumstances, and going desperately close to scoring.
In the review, Ireland will look at those near misses and resolve to do better. Just because the last five metres of the field is governed often by brawn doesn’t mean there can’t be some creativity lobbed in for effect. To be conducting that review on the back of two bonus point wins is savage stuff.