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Ireland player ratings vs Wales | 2021 Six Nations

By Liam Heagney

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History beckoned Ireland on Sunday, the opportunity to win and for the first time ever in the Six Nations close off an opening weekend to the tournament where all three round one matches had been won by the away team. Andy Farrell’s XV was laced with intrigue.

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Could the starting back row combination of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander, a trio that failed at the World Cup and was still floundering twelve months ago when bricked walled by England at Twickenham in their last selection together, deliver a level of dynamism, balance and cohesion thought beyond them?

Could the midfield partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, so frequently excellent with Leinster, thrive at Test level where they had last started together when routed by the All Blacks in Japan 16 months ago?

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What Johnny Sexton’s thoughts were before Ireland played Wales on Sunday

Might Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray turn the clock to 2018 when they were without parallel as the world’s best half-back combo? And could individuals such as Rob Herring and Tadhg Beirne finally make their faces fit at this level and pull out performances to ensure they would not be receiving bad news when Farrell picks his XV for next Sunday’s round two home encounter with France?

Ireland under Farrell were desperate on the road in 2020, riddled with inconsistencies when losing twice at Twickenham and once in Paris with the Six Nations title on the line. They needed to break that away duck in Cardiff if his tenure in charge was to flourish, but that wasn’t going to be straightforward against a Welsh XV of 874 caps, their most experienced ever line-up.

There was a three-pronged reason why Joe Schmidt never won with Ireland in Cardiff in the Six Nations: they couldn’t handle the intensity of the Welsh defence, they got stuck in the ruck on their own ball and Wayne Barnes, the match referee in 2015 and 2017.

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Barnes was on the whistle again in 2021 and it again unravelled for Ireland, O’Mahony red-carded after 14 minutes and Ireland going on to stuff up a 13-6 interval lead to lose 16-21. Here is how their players rated:

15. HUGO KEENAN – 7
Nailed down the full-back slot when unflappable under the high ball in Limerick last month with Leinster and he was inspiringly brave at times here, hungry for involvement and unafraid of carrying into traffic. Had 89 metres run from nine first-half carries, which was important in shifting momentum post the O’Mahony red card, one carry directly leading to a ruck penalty and a second bringing another two phases later.

He was also alive to the danger, for instance, tackling Louis Rees-Zammit brilliantly on a Welsh penalty advantage. He was less involved in the second half, the pattern of the exchanges changing to leave him with a total of 130 metres from 14 carries. While his display ended with an ill-judged pass that Jordan Larmour knocked on, he did enough to suggest he will wear the No15 shirt for the entire championship.

14. KEITH EARLS – 5
One of seven 30-somethings on the team sheet, he was excellent on a fifth-minute kick-chase when flapping the ball back on the Ireland side. Softly knocked-on under dropping ball six minutes later but had an otherwise quiet first half as play generally occurred elsewhere.

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Was caught on 56 minutes for taking Gareth Davies out in the air on halfway, the penalty giving Wales their entry to the 22 that led to the Rees-Zammit try. Was then replaced by Larmour six minutes later.

13. GARRY RINGROSE – 6
Desperately unlucky with injuries in 2020, he was of great help in ensuring Ireland didn’t fall into the first-half hole dug by O’Mahony. Showed lovely hands when popping off the floor early to Keenan. A sliced kick blotted his copy but he stayed in the fight, winning a turnover penalty off Leigh Halfpenny just before the break.

Finished the game with 137 metres off 15 carries. However, his performance was shaken by the costly fumble in the carry that resulted in the turnover for the George North try on 49 minutes that brought the Welsh kicking and screaming back into the contest.

12. ROBBIE HENSHAW – 8
Huge fillip for him to be picked at 12 instead of Bundee Aki, the usual occupant of the shirt. His main involvement early on was packing down at a scrum after O’Mahony was carded, but he came into his own in what followed. Sweet tackle on George North stopped one potential Wales breakaway, and he was critical to Tadhg Beirne’s try, coming back against the grain in the carry and skipping past Justin Tipuric.

Clocked 69 metres off eleven first-half carries, going on to finish with 116 metres from 18 runs. An in-at-the-side penalty pegged Ireland’s riposte after Wales had cut the margin to two points and he then missed time with a head injury assessement. Came back strong, though, and won the added time penalty that should have given Ireland a lineout in the 22 but for Billy Burns to shockingly kick the ball dead.

11. JAMES LOWE – 7
Labelled a ‘surprise pick’ as he hadn’t played any rugby in eleven weeks, he got under Wales’ skin in his Autumn Nations Cup debut and he was stylishly impactful here, kicking for 259 metres in the first half and making 89 metres from eight carries.

It was his lengthy clearance that led to the lineout which Wales botched for the Ireland try. Came under greater pressure in the second half, gambling and losing when faced with the two-on-one of the try-scoring North carrying with Halfpenny outside him. Finished with 175 metres off 17 carries but never looked like scoring.

10. JOHNNY SEXTON – 5
Started cagily, finished injured. It was his blocked grubber kick which put Ireland under pressure in the lead-up to the first Halfpenny points and his high tackle on Johnny Williams cost the second three penalty points. Far more effective when Ireland changed their approach following the red card, looking to create rather kick the ball away.

Flunked an early second-half touch-finder, gave up a turnover on the floor to Tipuric, had a spell at No12 when Henshaw had his HIA and then woundingly missed touch with a penalty on 68 minutes. Didn’t see out the game as he took an accidental bang to the head from Tipuric on the ground. The defeat will now generate more questions about his capabilities as a Test level captain.

9. CONOR MURRAY – 6
Some claimed his omission for Jamison Gibson-Park in November was a sign he might no longer be the first choice, but class is permanent when it comes to Murray and it showed at times in Cardiff. His kicking game initially didn’t have the necessary chasers, but he became far more influential when Ireland changed tack when reduced to 14 players and kept hold of the ball.

Ended the first half in flying from but then petered out with his team under pressure, a silly penalty for obstruction under dropping ball a snapshot of what went wrong in the second half. Played 73 minutes before Gibson-Park came on.

1. CIAN HEALY – 5
Came in under less pressure for the first time in ages knowing he could empty the tank with Dave Kilcoyne as the seasoned bench back up and not the greenhorns that were there for most of 2020. It wasn’t obvious he was having an impact but he went about his business quietly in swinging first-half momentum Ireland’s way. Gave way on 52 minutes to allow Kilcoyne try and stem the Welsh tide with 39 metres off seven carries.

2. ROB HERRING – 6
Was Farrell’s preferred starter in seven of Ireland’s nine games last year but hadn’t fully convinced he could fill the void left by the retired Rory Best. Lost one crucial lineout on 26 minutes after a penalty had been kicked into the Welsh 22.

Redeemed himself by coming up with the Welsh lineout ball that ultimately led to Ireland’s lone try from Beirne. Gutsy in the tackle, as seen when hauling Tipuric down early in the second half, but he also had issues, high-tackling soon after. Lasted 72 minutes before Ronan Kelleher was introduced.

3. ANDREW PORTER – 6
Similar to Healy, Porter could give it his all in the knowledge Tadhg Furlong was Sunday’s bench back-up unlike in previous games when he even went the full 80 in one outing. Carried regularly – official stats had him at 40 metres for seven runs by the time he gave way for Furlong on 54 minutes. Furlong was energetic, making 22 metres off six carries, but he agonisingly didn’t have enough gas to edge Rees-Zammit into touch when he dived to score.

4. TADHG BEIRNE – 8
His best display yet in an Ireland jersey. Started by exhibiting excellent hands to get Lowe away when the ball went loose. His interventions were crucial in Ireland turning a six-point deficit into a seven-point interval lead. He tempted Ken Owens into conceding the first Welsh penalty of the game on 26 minutes, a carry a minute later then gave Sexton penalty points and he also carried twice for his try.

There was a lineout fumble just before the break, but he went on to be one of the strongest resistors to the Welsh second-half comeback. Was harshly penalised by Barnes for the penalty that put Wales 21-13 clear. Made 98 metres from his 18 carries.

5. JAMES RYAN – 7
Was only on the pitch for 24 minutes before giving way to a head injury assessment but by then he had already stolen two Welsh lineouts and was enjoying himself in knockabout fashion with his tackling, putting in half-a-dozen.

Iain Henderson, his replacement, was influential for a time, winning a penalty just before the beak and making an excellent early second-half rip. Was caught defensively for the North try, though, and from there struggled for game-breaking impact despite finishing with a 47-metre gain from ten carries.

6. PETER O’MAHONY – 0
Pinged at the ruck for the penalty that gave Wales their sixth-minute lead and was then red-carded on 14 minutes for driving an elbow into the face of Tomas Francis at a breakdown. TMO Tom Foley made sure O’Mahony was given the embarrassing ultimate sanction.

“It’s definite foul play, he has come from a distance at hight speed,” he told Barnes. Without any mitigating factors, the sending-off was the correct call and it was the second time in recent months that O’Mahony saw red in Wales as he was sent off for Munster at Scarlets in October. He seriously needs to cut out the naughty stuff.

7. JOSH VAN DER FLIER – 6
Lasted 60 minutes before giving way to Will Connors with Ireland behind on the scoreboard. Conceded the game’s first penalty when getting his running lines mixed up, causing an obstruction. Came up with a Tipuric fumble, then had the ball ripped from him by Wyn Jones to ruin a 19-phase Ireland attack, but he was smart in not reaching for the line in the lead-up to the Beirne try, opting to set-up a ruck just short of the target. Seven tackles and 46 metres for seven carries were his numbers in a performance that faded away in the second half.

8. CJ STANDER – 7
Signed off with 89 metres from 17 carries but that wasn’t enough for him to have a game-swaying impact with Ireland eventually losing the run of themselves having initially coped well with the expulsion of O’Mahony. While O’Mahony’s card will naturally cloud assessment, the general takeaway is that Ireland’s back row was still looking for the dominance it craves to become a title-winning force again in the Six Nations. Next weekend’s selection will be interesting with O’Mahony set to be suspended and Caelan Doris still unavailable.

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Ireland player ratings vs Wales | 2021 Six Nations

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