Return of Conor Murray's biggest weapons give Ireland another reason to believe
The zip is back.
For all the positives of Ireland's back-to-back victories over Wales, the sight of Conor Murray's passing cranked all the way up to 100 was the one that pleased me most.
Scrumhalves often look class when their forward pack are dominating and that was a huge part of what Murray so potent in the 19-10 Aviva Stadium victory. The Irish pack [subs included] made 80 carries against the Welsh and 33 were over the gainline for a 43% success rate. Wales' forward were way down at 23%.
The armchair ride, for long stretches, certainly helped but Wales are no chumps and there were some testing moments, especially in the first 40 minutes. To me, Murray was at his very best in the first half and that slings-shot action was back in his pass. It was Mentos in the cola bottle stuff.
On the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, former Munster and Ireland centre Barry Murphy was also raving about Murray while [from 49:00 below] Leinster winger James Lowe spoke about how most sides would be looking to get after the Ireland No.9 in Japan.
"If Jonathan is on your team, you look after him," says James Lowe. "If you're playing against him, you go after him. You go after the talisman. You go after the man you know who's dictating the game.
"It's kind of like that with Conor Murray at Munster. If he passes it, you get in his way. You try make him go around you, you get him on the deck. Every little thing you can do. If you can slow down a 9 or get a 10 on the ground, it's huge. Even if it's two seconds, you can get set, you can get a little bit wider. A little bit more line speed and more connected. Cheating without getting caught, you know? It's all part of the game."
On Saturday, you could see the Welsh players were eager to throw Murray and Sexton off their game as much as possible. Tomos Williams was niggling at Murray around the scrum while Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty were rushing him around the ruck whenever they could. Sexton, meanwhile, had Moriarty, Hadleigh Parkes and Jake Ball taking runs at him.
Both Ireland half backs were wired in from the start, though, and they kept their team ticking nicely. With a little help from their momentum-winning forwards, they looked back to their 2016-2018 best.
Two passes from Murray - one off his left and one off his right - really stood out in a game in which he had 107 possessions [98 passes, six kicks, three carries] assisted for two of the Irish tries, stuck four tackles and helped secure his team a turnover over on the left wing.
The first was a flat pass, skipping Sexton, straight into the pouch of Jordan Larmour, who took it on the run and breached the Welsh 22.
Such was the pile forward by Ireland, sparked by a Bundee Aki carry, that Wales went offside and conceded a penalty.
Sexton kicked for a lineout that Ireland won and, once again, due to a dominant carry [one of seven made by the forwards in the game] by CJ Stander, the hosts had the Welsh in trouble.
Murray arrived at the ruck and the speed of his pass allowed Sexton to get on the outside of his man, draw to defenders in and slip the ball to Rob Kearney, who beat Jonathan Davies to score:
On Murray's performance against Wales, Murphy said, "His passing was incredible. The speed of the ball delivered really stood out.
"It wasn't just that Ireland were winning collisions. He knew that he wanted to get the ball out. Quick ball, quick ball. Our 9 to 10 or 9 to first receiver passes have been a bit short for the past six or seven months.
"When we've played well in the past and beaten the likes of the All Blacks, we're creating a bit more space by taking out those first three or four defenders with longer and quicker passes. And our attackers are then coming in from different angles so there's a lot more going on."
Added to Murray's speed of pass and urgency was the return of the box-kick. Granted, Murray only unfurled his go-to weapon only three times but it was good to see a few of them sprinkled back in, especially as the Irish kick-chase is often so effective.
Most Irish fans, and the coaches, I'm sure, will feel a lot better about our World Cup chances after seeing Murray and Sexton back in tandem and back having a big influence on proceedings.
The real stuff is about to begin but we go into this World Cup with renewed belief that has nothing to do with rankings or the form of opponents.
WATCH THE LATEST HOUSE OF RUGBY EPISODE HERE
The latest episodes sees Leinster star James Lowe join Barry Murphy, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery to discuss his time in Ireland, Leinster teammate Josh van der Flier and how he reckons Joe Schmidt's men will fare at the World Cup.