Sexton is much more than a kicker:
Let’s first talk about the elephant in the room who is wearing no clothes: Sexton’s woes from the tee. With the tight nature of the game, it started to feel like those missed kicks were going to put Ireland on the wrong side of the scoreline at the final whistle. A lesser player might have let their poor kicking form affect the rest of their play but Sexton is a class above this. Many of his other contributions were sublime: the break out from his own 22; his pass to Stockdale for the opening try; smashing Moriarty over his own line when Ireland lost the lineout; his carry near the line in the tight before Healy went over for the score; his dummy and delayed pass to put Kearney through before Earl’s chip and chase in the 2nd half. These are just a few moments in what was an expert performance in managing Ireland’s attack that yielded 5 tries. Sexton himself will certainly not be happy – is he ever? – with both his kicking and being stripped easily in one contact situation but we should remember he offers this side so much more than just his boot.
Stockdale: As likely to concede a try as to score one
With 8 tries from 7 outings, Jacob Stockdale is man who knows how to score. It is genuinely exciting to have such talent in the Irish backline but being only 21, Stockdale has plenty of development and tries to come in a glittering career for both Ulster and Ireland. One of his main work-ons is his defence and he was at fault for Wales’ first score, when he drifted too early and expected too much from James Ryan coming across from the inside. It was telling that Stockdale (drifting wide) even collided with Rob Kearney (who was outside of him) who had recognised the immediate threat that Gareth Davies posed in that instance. Later in the game, Stockdale rushed out of the line, got neither man or ball, and Aaron Shingler was put over the line in a simple 2 v 1. Stockdale will learn to make better reads in defence – such as for his try at the end of the game – but he must do so quickly or see his attacking abilities overlooked when it comes to selection.
Worryingly, Saturday was not an anomaly as Stockdale was caught out against France when Teddy Thomas scored after a poor kick chase. It was telling that he was substituted immediately after that error. Against perhaps a lesser attacking threat in Italy, there were also some worrying signs in terms of his defence. The Azzurri’s opening score was through a gap between Leavy and Stockdale and a very simple try. Not just his fault of course, but he has to rectify these lapses. Stockdale has a tendency to hold off when defending, especially on the open side, waiting for his teammates to get out to him. Ireland’s personnel change in the centres could well be taking its toll here but Schmidt will be expecting much more from his wingers. Much like Larmour, Stockdale’s attacking prowess has been rightly celebrated for both club and country but if they want to add to their caps total, both men will need to up their game without the ball.
Praise the young and they’ll come good: Farrell, Porter, Ryan and Leavy
Much of the build-up to this test was centred on the fact Ireland were missing key figures while Wales were seeing their stars return. Everyone was reminded that Andrew Porter had only a handful of games under his belt on the right-hand side of the scrum. People said Farrell would struggle to fill Henshaw’s boots despite a very positive game against Argentina in the November series. Oddly James Ryan and Dan Leavy were seen almost as veterans compared to Farrell and Porter. Wales would exploit the likes of Ryan with their stalwart Alun Wyn Jones and show him up for the fresh-faced player he is with his handful of caps. The pressure on each of them was immense.
Cometh the hour, cometh the men.
All four had sensational games and Farrell was rewarded for his efforts with ‘Man-of-the-Match’, although Ryan and Leavy could not have been far off this accolade. Both men toiled furiously all day and ensured Murray had exceptionally clean, quick ball for Ireland to turn the screw on Wales with their attack. Porter had a great day in the scrum and around the park, showing everyone he will not be content staying in Tadgh Furlong’s shadow for long. Even the inexperienced (at this level) Bundee Aki is growing more and more into his role and took a great line for his try before half-time. It was hugely encouraging to see Jack Conan coming on to offer something different in their back-row options. His foray from the bench keeps O’Mahoney and Stander wanting to be at their best too.
All of this bodes extremely well for Schmidt as he builds a squad with real depth that was so lacking when Ireland lost an array of key figures against France in the last World Cup. There are genuine contenders for almost every position -light a candle for Saints Murray and Sexton that they will be fit – and this gives Ireland a quality and a consistency that has always eluded them.