By Phil Rice
Ireland duly negotiated their way past an unimpressive Italy team at the Aviva Stadium last weekend, 56-19.
At the end of the second weekend of the Six Nations Ireland are sitting atop of the Championship table. However, there is a potentially heavy price for their victory as two key players incurred injuries.
Tight-head prop Tadhg Furlong left the field after only three minutes with a hamstring strain and is a doubt for the next match against Wales on 24 February.
Centre Robbie Henshaw was having an outstanding game on when he dislocated his shoulder whilst scoring his second try.
The injury will keep him out for the remainder of the Championship. Twenty-one-year-old Andrew Porter replaced Furlong at tight-head and performed very well, holding his own in the scrum and making 13 carries, the second most from anyone in the match.
His performance drew praise from Joe Schmidt. He said: “Fair play to Andrew, we thought it a fantastic investment in him getting that amount of time, and he acquitted himself very well.”
Wales, though, have a powerful front row and the presence of Furlong would be reassuring. Ireland have already been without Garry Ringrose in the centre and with Henshaw now unavailable the cupboard is looking bare in midfield.
It was good to see Ireland play a more expansive game against Italy and their reward was a try scoring bonus point before half-time.
Their performance drew high praise from their opposition. Italy captain Sergio Parisse commented: “I think Ireland are playing better rugby and they are harder to play against than England.”
Schmidt was generally satisfied with the performance. He said: “I was really happy with the way we started, I felt we played with good width. Most of it was accurate. There were a few inaccuracies and we turned over more ball than we would have planned to.”
But he brought realism to the situation by adding: “Wales will be a whole different scenario, they play a lot of territory, force you to bring the ball back into a whole line of defenders.
“They are a very good attacking side as well as defence and they squeeze you and force errors. Where we are now, we’ve already started thinking forward and haven’t had too much time to reflect on this game.”
News: @henshawrob ruled out of Championship. @tadhgfurlong – minor hamstring & @JackConan1 slight shoulder knock – both should be available for @WelshRugbyUnion match. #IREvWAL #TeamOfUs pic.twitter.com/rq8FmInLWk
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 12, 2018
Wales pushed England all the way on Saturday and were somewhat unlucky not to get more than a losing bonus point in their 12-6 defeat.
The TMO appeared to give the wrong judgement for a potential Welsh touchdown. The game demonstrated that Wales will be a handful, but also that England are beatable, even at Twickenham.
Saturday was a significant day for St. Andrew’s College, not a traditional rugby stronghold, as two of its alumni took the field for Ireland.
Firstly when Porter replaced Furlong and later when Jordan Larmour made his much anticipated debut. The twenty-year-old utility back played on the wing as a replacement for Henshaw.
He was badly wrong-footed by Minnozi the Italian fullback prior to Italy’s second try, but showed his clever footwork by making a sharp break later in the game.
Schmidt has some tricky selection issues before deciding on the team to face Wales. Dan Leavy enhanced his chances of retaining the openside flanker position and in the continued absence of Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, he will probably join Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the backrow.
The only certainty in the front row is captain Rory Best, who returned to something like his old self. Apart from scoring a well-taken try, his contribution in the loose was significantly better than of late.
The choice between Cian Healy and Jack McGrath was not eased at the weekend when McGrath had a fine game before being replaced by Healy, who had started against France.
That is a nice problem to have, but if Furlong is unable to play the tight-head choice may be tricky. Well as Porter played, the Wales front row will be a very different proposition than Saturday’s opponents and playing an inexperienced 21-year-old against Wales loose-head Rob Evans might be risky.
The alternative in the squad is John Ryan, whose scrummaging was exposed against France. Stephen Archer the Munster prop who has been preferred over Ryan by his province this season, might be called into the squad if Furlong is unavailable.
In the second-row Devin Toner had a fine game and showed how valuable his lineout ability is. James Ryan is nursing an injury after his excellent performance against France but is expected to be fit for the Wales game, another difficult choice but a nice problem to have.
Despite their extensive injury list, Wales have shown superb form in their first two matches. It will be a very competitive match in Dublin and the result may rest on whether Tadhg Furlong is fit and available to play.
When asked if he was happy for his team to be in the position they are after two games, Schmidt said he was ‘very happy, except I’m concerned about our injuries’. Injuries are an occupational hazard in international rugby and we may be about to discover just how strong Ireland’s depth of talent really is.