New kids give Joe a selection dilemma for Scotland 'semi-final'
There have been many great Ireland/Wales encounters down through the years. I've played in one or two myself and attended most every other but few if any compare to what we witnessed on Saturday in Lansdowne Road.
Indeed this was like the Lansdowne of old with not even the slightest hint of a Mexican wave and hardly anyone leaving their seats before the final whistle.
Even new age fans were riveted to the spot and totally in tune with matters on the field. In technical terms what we witnessed was a Welsh side with emphasis as expected very much on individual and collective line speed a la Shaun Edwards.
The Welsh decision to commit precious few to the breakdown saw Joe Schmidt employ the inside route via consistent reverse passing (allied to the occasional Conor Murray kick special) as the prime ground breaking gambit. It worked but almost at a price.
Attacking close to the set piece and tackle area saw the wide Irish players sucked in and squeezed much too tight for comfort, particularly on the turn over.
There were remnants of the less reassuring moments from the Italian job and again in the final quarter.
Credit Rob Howley and Wales for battling back in the manner they did but rest assured that Andy Farrell (whose positive impact has been immense) will be looking for a better balance against the equally adventurous Scottish equivalent under Greg Townsend and Finn Russell. Even at this distance the thought of the game against the Scots whets the appetite.
Thus far it has been a fantastic championship and, given the reaction I am having from folk in the southern hemisphere, it is resonating worldwide. We are not the finished article but we know that and for me it is the biggest plus going into the Lansdowne semi against the Scots and hopefully the Paddies Day Twickenham Finale to follow.
For whatever reason - and only the ace kicker himself knows the answer - Johnny Sexton was out of kilter off the tee. But the truly great players put goal kicking issues to one side and motor on regardless. In that, like so many others around him, our out half was imperious.
In broad terms and given the quality of the opposition this was by some way the best performance of our three to date.
As somebody suggested to me ahead of kick off: "we've got the easy two out of the way". The French being one of the so called 'easy two'. My how times have changed, but would you bet against Les Bleus putting one over on the travelling charioty in a fortnight's time?
Travelling to Murrayfield and Stade De France in the lead in to what we all hope will be a St Patrick's Day showdown is hardly the ideal route. Unless that is you have even the remotest association with anything green.
But back to Saturday and an opening quarter straight from the head coach's wildest dreams, the odd Sexton goal kicking glitch apart.
Physical intent was declared early and chiefly in the form of numbers eight and 13. CJ Stander has dropped a level from the spectacular of last season but when we needed one more than any other to deliver inch making forward momentum it was Stander the man.
He was brilliant in that tone-setting first 20 and along with the equally robust and perhaps even more effective Chris Farrell rules of engagement were declared.
Farrell ultimately got the official nod for Man of the Match and I have no quarrel with that but take any one from Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale (both wings - just how reassuring is that), Conor Murray (absolutely brilliant in every facet of his considerable game), Stander or any of the three new kids on the block - Andrew Porter, James Ryan or Dan Leavy and the same comment would apply.
We wondered, no make that feared (myself included) as to how Porter, Ryan and Farrell would replace Tadgh Furlong, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw respectively but they did and how. The scrum was rock, and I mean ROCK solid, Ryan was everywhere and Farrell well quite simply a most worthy recipient of most valuable player.
So put yourself in the main man's shoes and pray tell just how easy you think it might be to reinstall Furlong, Henderson and/or Garry Ringrose on the back of what we witnessed from the replacement trio.
Ryan will now leapfrog Devin Toner (who was also immense) into first choice lock a la POC and I for one won't quibble with that. Farrell has surely done enough to retain his place ahead of Garry Ringrose who could and should come into the 23 as utility cover although I would still make a strong case for Jordan Larmour in terms of potential impact in a crisis off the bench.
I suggested at the start of this season that Dan Leavy, given his physical development since leaving school, had and has the potential to become another Richie McCaw. He is now on that road.
Schmidt and Simon Easterby are spoilt for choice in the back row but they know and treat what is the real challenge of getting the balance right (factoring in the opposition) with the gravitas it deserves.
Mention too of Greg Feek. I wouldn't even pretend to know what the scrum engineer does to make what we witnessed on Saturday in Furlong's absence happen but he has created one very happy bunny in the newly converted tight head and an equally happy nation on the back of it.
As for Murray, my respect holds no bounds. He is the epitome of honesty and coolness in a rugby player. Stepping forward to take that vital penalty putting us out to 10 typified the courage of the man.
Aaron Smith is a superb yet different type of scrum half with the outstanding purveyor in the linking art undoubtedly wearing the green number nine at this point in time.
Three down, two to go with the semi next up.
Pinch yourself but hold the head as we move ever closer to that 'box seat'.