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'Ireland remain on course but tougher tests await'

Written by 
Published in Rugby
Sunday, 11 February 2024 14:33

After the pizzazz and fireworks of Marseille, one of Ireland's main priorities going into Sunday's Six Nations encounter with Italy was to avoid the possible hangover from a famous, chest-beating win over one of their fiercest rivals.

In truth, it was never in doubt. While there were a few shaky moments and errors, Ireland produced a professional and efficient performance with six tries to stay on course for another Grand Slam.

While the atmosphere was flat at times, Ireland provided enough moments to spark the Dublin crowd into life, with James Lowe's superb solo score and Jack Crowley's first try for club or country prime examples.

The Azzurri, who caused Ireland plenty of issues in Rome last year, were simply not up to the task.

Ireland know the score now. The rising pressure, the constant questions about Grand Slams, the finish line creeping into sight. They went through it all last year. They know how to navigate the various facets of a Grand Slam bid, and most importantly, they know how to get the job done.

Sunday's performance won't have been revelatory for Ireland's challengers. They remain a remarkably well-coached unit capable of recording comfortable wins even while operating far below their maximum. They also remain the team to beat.

But for Andy Farrell, a 17th successive home win was particularly pleasing given how they completely shut Italy out, the first time Ireland have kept a team scoreless in a championship game since 1987.

"36-0 is a nice scoreline for us," said Farrell.

"It's probably a better scoreline than 50-20. I thought we were clinical at times and I thought our set-piece was excellent, top drawer.

"We scored some nice tries on the back of all that type of pressure. Two [wins] from two, it's a decent start but it gets tougher."

Farrell's last three words reverberate the strongest. While Ireland have beaten France away - arguably their toughest fixture on paper - they must negotiate appointments with their Triple Crown rivals: home games against Wales and Scotland either side of a trip to Twickenham to face England.

While Farrell was able to make six changes and still lead his side past Italy with little fuss, there is a sense that he will need all of his heavy-hitters in the weeks ahead.

With that, the sight of Hugo Keenan limping off in the second half will have been deeply disturbing for Ireland fans. Keenan, one of Ireland's outstanding players in recent years, was electric at full-back again before being forced off.

With captain Peter O'Mahony, Tadhg Furlong and Bundee Aki all carrying niggles that were deemed serious enough for them to be excused from duty for the Italy game, and Garry Ringrose missing the first two matches, the injuries are quietly stacking up in the Irish squad.

Farrell can ill afford further injury headaches before Wales visit Dublin in a fortnight's time even if he does expect the aforementioned trio to return to training this week, but he was not in a position to offer any reassurances about Keenan.

"Hugo has a bang on his knee, so I don't know," Farrell said.

"He seems in good spirits but you saw him, he was limping so we'll see how he turns up tomorrow morning, whether he needs anyone to have a look at that I don't know."

While some of Farrell's frontliners were absent, others stepped up, not least Robbie Henshaw.

A starting centre for the British and Irish Lions in 2021, Henshaw has endured his share of injury troubles while stiff competition in midfield means he is not always assured of a starting spot.

But after a big performance against France last week, the 30-year-old was central to Ireland's success again - even if the smile was momentarily wiped off his face when his second-half try was ruled out.

"He's found his mojo, he's back," Farrell said of Henshaw.

"He's on fire at the minute. You could see that when we first met up in training. He's back to his old self.

"His confidence, he's bouncing around the place. We spoke during the week about his combination with Stu [McCloskey] last time they played in Biarritz against Samoa [in a World Cup warm-up] how it wasn't what it should have been.

"They both worked really hard to make the team feel righty today and Robbie was certainly at the heart of that."

Doris reflects on 'special' day as captain

It may not have been his best performance, but Sunday will be a day to cherish for Caelan Doris, who became the 110th man to captain Ireland in O'Mahony's absence.

Given that he is only 25 and made his debut for Ireland four years ago - in Farrell's first game in charge, incidentally - it is a telling reflection of Doris' rise that he was a candidate to succeed Johnny Sexton as skipper.

Farrell surprised some by handing the Leinster back row the captaincy - especially with James Ryan in the starting line-up - but Doris delivered a result in his first run-out as the group's leader.

"It was special and knowing the group we have made it even more special," said Doris, who admitted he was more nervous than usual in the build-up to the game.

"We're a tight-knit group. We've been together for the guts of four years now, the relationships we have are special.

"The environment the coaches have set, about being ourselves and being vulnerable makes my job easier and made it easier this week. I leaned heavily on the other lads as well.

"I hope everyone that has been involved from Ballina to Blackrock can take a bit of pride from this and seeing me captain the country."

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