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Ireland can still improve with title in their sights, says Schmidt

Ireland 37-27 Wales

By Jonathan Bradley

For most of this championship, England and Ireland were expected to be neck and neck. Now with two hurdles left to clear, Joe Schmidt's men are the clear front-runners.

After an incredible day of Six Nations action thrown up on Saturday, Ireland stand alone at the top of the championship standings, five points clear of their nearest challengers and all of a sudden favourites to lift a third crown in five years.

It had already been a fantastic day for Ireland in Dublin when they saw off the challenge of Wales with a bonus point to boot, but England's surprising loss to Scotland in the big Calcutta Cup clash means that the men in green could be in a position to win the title next time out.

If Ireland beat Scotland, and take more points from that fixture than England manage against France later that day, the championship will be theirs.

The turn of events on Saturday was one that few would have predicted, Ireland claiming a full five-point haul while England came away with not even a losing bonus point.

In what was a fantastic advert for Six Nations rugby, Ireland dominated for the better part of an hour against Wales, but Warren Gatland's men gamely clung on.

Surrendering two-thirds of the ball in the first half, and forced into making 101 tackles, it was remarkable that the game was so tight at half-time, with Ireland taking a 15-13 lead into the break thanks to scores from Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki. While aided by some Ireland inaccuracy and an uncharacteristic poor day off the tee by Johnny Sexton, Wales were second best but not beaten until the last.

Even with Ireland 14 points ahead and their bonus point secured, Wales came back again and were just three points in arrears when, showing the confidence of youth, Jacob Stockdale went for a do-or-die intercept with the clock red.

Fortune favoured the brave and he sprinted to the line for an eighth international score, but more importantly with Ireland's win finally in the bag.

"The frustrating thing was that when we got to 27-13 that we didn't keep that margin or grow it," said Schmidt of a nervier finish than it should have been. "They worked their way back into the game with some defending that we know we can do better.

"I'm sure that we will do better. I think that (defence coach) Andy Farrell does an unbelievably good job.

"One of the things about it is that when you do make personnel changes off the bench, we had guys making slightly different decisions, we got disconnected and it allowed them a fair bit of latitude to score tries and they scored some good ones."

On the whole though, this was a hugely encouraging outing from his side. Chris Farrell, the Fivemiletown man who is now back in the Irish set-up with Munster, was man-of-the-match on his first Six Nations outing when subbing in for the stricken Robbie Henshaw. Setting the tone less than a minute in with a big hit on Leigh Halfpenny, the former Ulster man stood up when most needed.

So too Andrew Porter and James Ryan, also filling in for injured Lions, while Dan Leavy, himself in the team due to Sean O'Brien's absence, must have been pushing Farrell close for the best player on the pitch.

"It was a huge stage and they were replacing big players for us," said Schmidt. "Chris Farrell getting man of the match, it's exciting to see that as well.

"It's well documented that Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are unavailable, and then the guy who steps up wins man of the match."

That final quarter will of course be a concern though looking ahead to next weekend's mouth-watering tie with a rejuvenated Scotland.

As Schmidt alluded to, the injuries that have denied him of some frontliners has a trickle down effect to his bench and for two games in succession they have lost their shape in the final quarter.

Again they conceded three tries, two of which - from Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans in the second-half - came in the wide channels.

It's been a problem area for Ireland on occasion over the years, and once again they displayed a tendency to get too narrow. The head coach warned that Scotland have more than enough weapons to hurt Ireland with width on the ball.

"It is, obviously with the runners Scotland have - the Stuart Hoggs, the Tommy Seymours, the likes of Sean Maitland, who are very quick athletes," said Schmidt. "It's always a concern.

"I think we helped them a little bit. We didn't stay connected, we had guys doing different things and I think we can repair a lot of that over the next two weeks. It was frustrating against Italy and it was frustrating today, albeit with lots of positives about eight tries and five tries [scored].

"What we are creating is keeping us safe from losses, but we've got to do better than conceding three tries two weekends in a row."

Ever the perfectionist, it wouldn't be Schmidt if there wasn't a fly in the ointment at this point.

He'll know too though, that things are shaping up very nicely indeed for his side.

Even more so should his proclamation that there is no ongoing injury concern over Johnny Sexton prove to be true. Ireland's immediate injury bulletins are always to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, but Schmidt played down any suggestion that he, or his other playmaker in chief, Conor Murray, would be in any doubt for Scotland. "(Sexton) just got a bit of dead glute, so he kind of copped a knee in the backside really.

"Again at that stage of the game he could have stayed on and played on but we've got a lot of confidence in Joey Carbery."

IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls, C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (c), A Porter, J Ryan (for Porter, 66), D Toner; P O'Mahony, D Leavy, CJ Stander.

REPLACEMENTS: S Cronin (for Best, 70), J McGrath (for Healy, 62), J Ryan (for Porter, 66), Q Roux, J Conan (for O'Mahony, 66), K Marmion, J Carbery (for Sexton, 76), F McFadden (for Earls, 62)

WALES: L Halfpenny; L Williams, S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; D Biggar, G Davies; R Evans, K Owens, S Lee; C Hill, AW Jones (c); A Shingler, J Navidi, R Moriarty.

REPLACEMENTS: E Dee (for Owens, 55), W Jones (for Evans, 55), T Francis (for Lee, 55), B Davies (for Hill, 62), J Tipuric (for Moriarty, 22) A Davies, G Anscombe (for Biggar, 62), G North (for L Williams, 62)

Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)

Man of the match: Chris Farrell (IRE)

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