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Different class Andrew Conway sets a perfect example for Ireland

Tony Ward



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Cut above: Andrew Conway celebrates his try with Ross Byrne

Cut above: Andrew Conway celebrates his try with Ross Byrne

�INPHO/Gary Carr

Rob Herring

Rob Herring

�INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Cut above: Andrew Conway celebrates his try with Ross Byrne

We are all prone to a little exaggeration from time to time so we'll try and keep a lid on this one. Not since November 2018 when the All Blacks came to town have I been party to an Aviva Stadium atmosphere in which players and supporters were umbilically linked from first minute to last.

What we witnessed on Saturday wasn't your populist 'Fields of Athenry' nonsense but a crowd at one with its players, willing them on in adversity when momentum might have been shifting and the ultimate outcome heading the other way.

Players help crowds make the atmosphere and not the other way around but by extension the terraces then drive players those extra yards. This was a game and a performance to lift the spirit and one underpinned by the first substantial hint of a World Cup exorcism.

We haven't won anything but a two-from-two start is a useful launching pad. But much more relevant was an 80-minute no-holds-barred performance unrecognisable from what passed for an opening-day win seven days before.

This was real Test rugby reminiscent of Joe Schmidt intensity at its best but loaded with very definite hints of a squad looking to break free of any straitjackets - practical or psychological.

We still, as Andy Farrell stated in the immediate aftermath, have a way to go but the hints at a new beginning or at least a determined effort to make one were there for all to see.

We still do far too much box-kicking, or let me put it another way - as that appears to be a criticism solely aimed at Conor Murray which it is most definitely not - much too much aimless kicking, conceding possession cheaply and far too often. And yes, because of the way we play our No.9 tends to be the biggest culprit.

Murray was one of many to step up to the mark against the Welsh and has in the process copper-fastened his place for Twickenham so the debate versus John Cooney can rest for one more game at least. In collective terms the lineout was by and large bountiful despite one specific glitch of note and here again, at throw-in time and general play, Rob Herring was outstanding.

The scrum creaked again early but quickly settled whereby each unit took its own put-in comfortably (the word strike no longer applies).

For the purists the quality at the breakdown was majestic and while Justin Tipuric was again masterful in all he did (their best player alongside the skipper one row up) all three Irish loosies (for that they were on this day) battled for balance and ball at every conceivable opportunity.

It would be a travesty if any of Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier or CJ Stander were to lose their place for Twickenham. Caelan Doris and Max Deegan will have their day but for the England game next up the status quo should and I suspect will prevail.

But this was a day of big performances all round. Tadhg Furlong was again immense and not just as a wrecking ball but as a controlled leader and steady ball carrier in the white heat of mayhem. He tied with Stander and Van der Flier as our most effective forward in my book.

The official man of the match gong went to the Ireland No.8 and he too was awesome in work ethic and practical impact but for me Andrew Conway was in a different league to every other player on this particular day.

Whether in defence or attack, running or kicking, chasing or covering, his performance was in the Nadia Comineci perfect 10 category. One first-half kick off the outside of his right foot from '22' to '22' represented a moment of sublime skill in both design and execution, while his defensive reading was matched only by his athleticism in the air which in itself is quite remarkable for one so relatively small.

Alongside him Jordan Larmour continues to grow in confidence and impact. He scored a try to which he had no right, one in which his footwork was surpassed by raw desire or 'true grit', call it what you will.

He will commit the occasional own goal or at least the rugby equivalent, take that as read, but as an example as to how the game should be played at the highest level in terms of moral courage he is a supreme definition.

Robbie Henshaw, too, had a powerful input in his time on. He brought the physicality when it was needed most in the early stages.

He had no clean breaks per se but was continually asking questions of Hadleigh Parkes and Nick Tompkins in midfield. His deft changes in angle when on the ball kept both Welsh centres locked in, thereby creating that momentary space for Conway and Jacob Stockdale down the outside channels.

And last but not least the skipper. For the second week running he was in a game in which the referee underperformed.

His frustration and by extension his demeanour as captain in those moments still leaves much to be desired. He knows that too, but he is learning on the job and as an out-half and chief orchestrator the added responsibility is not impacting on his game in any negative way at all. Like the new coach, the new captain is a work in progress but the signs are good.

To be where we are heading on to Twickenham in search of a Triple Crown is almost unimaginable given where we were when we left Japan in psychological tatters just four months ago.

There is no room for complacency and I think it is already abundantly clear that particular word is very far removed from the former Wigan Warrior's vocabulary.

Saturday's win and the substance of it made for a big step in the right direction but on the day of a general election to borrow from the political lexicon, 'much done but much still to do'.

Belfast Telegraph