Mike Ross showing Ireland how to adapt under pressure
Last week's column suggested that we would have a better idea of where we stood after the men’s and women’s games against Wales and indeed we do.
Thankfully the comprehensive 35-12 victory for the women's team over their Welsh counterparts has alleviated some of the pain felt by the squad last August and has sparked renewed enthusiasm amongst players and supporters alike.
I am going to take a few moments, while waiting for Storm Emma to arrive in East Limerick, to reflect on the victory. For me it was vital that they got the win, almost at any cost, as it builds momentum and continues the positive push forwards.
Among other things it is vital for women’s rugby in the country that our national team is successful and competing at the top table. Success breeds success on and off the field and with it an increased fan base, increased participation rates among young girls, increased support and increased revenue opportunities which can then be pumped back into the game at every level.
So with the victory secured and hopefully a third-placed finish with another success against a resurgent Scotland next week we need to look at the performance.
It was far from complete and the lapses in concentration to allow the Welsh back into the game after half-time, the intermittently malfunctioning lineout and increased penalty count in the second half will all need to be looked at and improved on.
It was however most encouraging to see a decrease in handling errors and some excellent line breaks and interlinking of forwards and backs. Sene Naoupu was excellent, her attacking lines and level of distribution was something we hadn’t seen from the Irish backs in many matches and her ability to bring other players into play a huge positive.
Also the kicking success rates off the tee for both Niamh Briggs and Kim Flood was hugely significant. Briggs will undoubtedly be disappointed with her kicking from hand on the day.
Claire Molloy deserves special mention. Not just for the fact that she completed four nights straight working as a doctor on the Tuesday, slept for the guts of two days and then met up with the team and produced her second consecutive player of the match performance.
Leaving all that aside it is the pure way that she goes about her trade as an openside flanker. Her ability to make the tackle get back on her feet and win the turnover, her ability to break from a scrum in the opposition 22 and be the person to make the tackle inside her own 22, her ability after 80 minutes of all of the above to stand up the opposition replacement back Robyn Wilkins step round her and score a fantastic try marks her apart.
In week one I mentioned Romaine Menager, the French openside as one to watch. Well she is one to watch but with her performances in the last two matches Claire Molloy is now firmly back as my pick of openside flankers in the Six Nations, men or women!
As seen in the previous two matches the Irish pack has been very strong on opposition scrum. I had concerns early on that the changes to the front row and the late withdrawal of Nichola Fryday were going to be an issue, not because of the players coming in but because the previous unit had worked so well.
It took them a scrum or two to settle and the Welsh pack were the first in three outings to put them under pressure but then one of the key moments for me came on 29 minutes when they turned over an attacking Welsh scrum on their own five-metre line. This was after a period of sustained Welsh pressure.
The Irish girls then stuck at their task and after another fantastic scrum of their own on 41 minutes ended up with Molloy scoring under the posts with Briggs converting. This ability to learn on the move and adapt to changing situations is key to the continued success of this dedicated group of athletes.
It’s fantastic to have Mike Ross on the training pitch and in the stands, but it is the belief in the system, their body positions within it, and ability to adapt under pressure that he has instilled in them that will take them forward.
So what of the men? The five of us watched this at home, glued to the TV as the Welsh launched one last attack. The worry was that they could do to us what we did to the French. Luckily for us Jacob Stockdale snuffed out the attack and galloped away into the sunset, keeping alive the Triple Crown, the Championship and the Grand Slam dream as he crossed the line.
After the French match I questioned the 'what if' (Sexton hadn’t got that try) and the 'why' (had it taken a drop goal to win that match). After the Welsh game the same thoughts did not take up as much space in my mind.
Yes, Wales could have scored on that last attack, I do feel they targeted the Stockdale wing and yes, we were far from perfect, however we were much better than Wales and had the normally ultra-reliable Sexton scored those three early kicks we would have been out of sight by the 80th minute.
Where are we then in terms of strength of depth in the men’s squad - as that was the question posed last week?
Well, the new kids on the Six Nations block certainly passed the test with flying colours. Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Dan Leavy were very solid in the pack and we now know they can mix it and cut it against the Six Nations elite with obviously the biggest test to come.
Stockdale’s brace shows that he is a fine finisher and I am sure the occasional defensive frailties will continue to be ironed out. What then of Chris Farrell? Did anyone see that performance coming? I for one did not.
While his performances for Munster and his debut for Ireland in November had been very solid with some nice touches we had not seen a full 80 minutes from him like we did last Saturday.
Even saying that I think there is so much more to come from him, he has a subtlety of hand and greater attacking flair than we witnessed. Such a shame that he now is facing a long period on the sidelines.
Here again the squad depth will be tested. Luckily the returning Garry Ringrose should be available for Scotland. It’s after that things get a little thinner on the ground and there could be a bit of reshuffling of the back line. Could Bundee Aki move out to 13 and allow Niall Scannell to occupy the number 12 shirt or perhaps a Sexton-Carbery combination?
I will finish column five where I started in column one, seeking significant game time for the mercurial but largely untested Joey Carbery.
It is one of the last pieces of the strength-in-depth jigsaw and one that needs to be put in place to complete the puzzle.