Ireland remain on course for Six Nations title

Andy Farrell and his assistants clearly had half an eye on increasing Ireland’s immediate depth chart with their selection for last Sunday’s facile win over Italy, while maintaining their sights on the Six Nations title by having a well-primed team for Twickenham. But although the exercise was certainly devalued by the Azzurri being reduced to 13 men for an hour, it wasn’t entirely useless.

Above all else, Farrell and company would have taken a 51-point winning margin all day long if offered it over their Sunday breakfast. But also try telling Michael Lowry, for starters, and his family that the game had little value. As he sat on the turf long after the final whistle chatting on his phone it looked like he could have been pitching a tent for the night.

Unlike France and England, who went full tilt at the Italians, despite a relatively low injury profile Ireland have used 31 players in their three games to date, and Lowry is the 25th debutant and 61st player used by Farrell in his 21-game tenure.

His acceleration and quick feet could add another dimension to Ireland’s attacking game. In truth, it would have been nice to see more of him as an alternative playmaker given his outhalf skills.

Granted, after two sharply taken tries, he may never turn down an easier hat-trick in his life, particularly at Test level, and Hugo Keenan will most likely return at Twickenham. But if Lowry is to be the fullback alternative then come the proposed couple of games against the New Zealand Maori next July he can only have benefitted from last week’s entire experience.

Restoring James Lowe after just a 27-minute cameo comeback for Leinster was vindicated. Most carries, most meters and most kicks, and a couple of booming touchfinders augmented his work under the high ball.

In addition to his roaming commission, when hugging that left touchline, no Irish winger can make so much out of the tightest of corridors, ie Jamison Gibson-Park’s try. He looks a certainty for Twickenham.

Dan Sheehan will start in Twickenham and likewise can only have benefitted from a first Test start and a near 70-minute shift

This was only Robbie Henshaw’s fifth start in a staccato season. He was often an effective first receiver without leaving the imprint of his 2021 form. Given the possibility of England’s saviour, Manu Tuilagi, returning a refreshed Bundee Aki will likely be restored for Twickenham. But Henshaw will, at the minimum, be in the 23 and this outing can only benefit.

Joey Carbery’s performance has been cast in the shadow of Johnny Sexton’s 27 minutes off the bench. Analysis of an outhalf’s display is often colored by their goal kicking, and it wasn’t a good look to be replaced immediately after missing a third successive conversion. It would have been good to see him kept on until the hour mark.

Leaving aside his goal kicking, which was superb against the All Blacks, Argentina and France, Carbery started the game strongly, again tackled well (something oft perceived as a weakness in his game), took his try, set up Lowry’s first and pulled the strings in the build-up to Peter O’Mahony’s try. A dummy and break past the outstanding Michael Lamaro, and offload to Josh van der Flier, along with a sweetly struck left footed touchfinder was another little reminder of his class.

Under his watch, Ireland did lose their way a little, especially in the third quarter. Going wide a bit laterally, even with 13 men the Italians were able to drift to the edge. Carbery seemed a little static at times and both he and, from his pass, Henshaw were caught man and ball, when a bit more depth might have outflanked the Italian shooters, although on other occasions Carbery did manage this quite neatly, either with depth and quick hands or floating a skip pass to O’Mahony.

But the Irish team’s 22 handling errors weren’t down to Carbery. For sure Sexton’s shoulders were more “square on” in his carries, which brought a better directness to Ireland’s attacking shape, and his ability to assess situations and see space, as when dummying and delaying his pass twice to release Rob Herring, were class.

He’s a gem, a once-in-a-generation player and Ireland are lucky he’s taken such good care of himself and that the desire still burns. Which is why comparisons with all other Irish outhalves are odious, like comparing other centers with Brian O’Driscoll or other locks with Paul O’Connell in their pomp. Also, the Italians were always going to wilt in the final quarter after playing so long with 13 men. Yet they were still putting their bodies literally on their line into overtime with 12 men.

Sheehan must start

Who knows how long Carbery might be required to play in Twickenham or at home to Scotland, or next summer in New Zealand or in 2023, and a second consecutive Six Nations start can only benefit him. And if Ronan O’Gara believes in him, that’s good enough for this column.

Dan Sheehan will start in Twickenham and likewise can only have benefitted from a first Test start and a near 70-minute shift. Pace footwork hands strength work rate darts. He just looks made for international rugby.

Something of a farce though last Sunday was, Farrell has given himself options primarily for Twickenham, but in the longer term as well

At times it seemed no less than the home crowd the home team had lost their edge, almost going through moves for the sake of it.

Yet it was still good to see Ryan Baird put himself about (a dozen tackles) as well as demonstrating his athleticism, and no less than Lowry, Kieran Treadwell will be walking a little taller too. Alongside the Duracell bunny that is Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris was Ireland’s best player in that 15-a-side opening quarter and beyond.

There’s no doubt number 8 gives him more opportunities to be on the ball, witness 13 carries, and the return was 101m, yet a stint on the bench appeared to provoke Jack Conan as well.

Something of a farce though last Sunday was, Farrell has given himself options primarily for Twickenham, but in the longer term as well.

Meanwhile, credit must go to the unified stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by the Six Nations and Aviva Stadium full house. Moreover, praise is also due to World Rugby for supporting Rugby Europe’s suspension of matches and activities hosted in Russia in line with the International Olympic Committee position.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo