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22nd Aug 2023

The underrated strength that gives Ireland an edge on most World Cup sides

Patrick McCarry

Olympic Sevens

It is hard to recall an Ireland side, over the past 20 years, that has done this so consistently.

Andy Farrell is fortunate to have so many big hitters to deliver the goods for Ireland, so frequently, but it is no fluke.

Compiling player ratings is a frenetic business and we have been known, here, to go back on the odd occasion – after a rewatch – to mark a player up or down on their original score. You get a sense for how a game is playing out, but it is tough to catch everything at once, especially when 30 lads are tearing into each other for 80+ minutes.

I have been giving out player ratings for about 15 years now and I would like to think I have a pretty decent handle on how it is done, and what merits good, bad or middling performances. I don’t get it right all the time, and social media is often there to keep me in check. Giving out a 6 when a fan feels they deserved a 7 can often cause ructions!

On Saturday, at Aviva Stadium, those player ratings saw another clatter of Irish players get 7s and 8s, with a few 7.5s in there too. Mack Hansen won Man of the Match and was rightfully showered with praise, but something else struck me about the performance. These players all had fine, comfortably above average games again.

  • Hugo Keenan
  • Mack Hansen
  • Bundee Aki
  • Tadhg Beirne
  • Josh van der Flier
  • Jamison Gibson-Park

No-one was particularly poor and most of the rest were solid, but there is a clear pattern with the lads logging excellent performances most times they step out in a green jersey. In the Italy game, Caelan Doris was the outstanding player on show. Add him to the list.

IrelandHugo Keenan, right, and Josh van der Flier of Ireland during the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match against England, at Aviva Stadium. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

Andy Farrell’s top performers

The three players I want to focus on, after that stroll against England, are Hugo Keenan, Josh van der Flier and Tadhg Beirne.

All three were on the money again. It would be a shock, after two and a half years in which Ireland have won 24 Test matches and lost only two, if any of that trio had a poor game. On the rare, rare occasions that it does happen, the other two will usually be on the money.

It is not just the consistency of these players, it is the scary consistency. They are usually 8 or 9 out of 10.

Joe Schmidt used to have a few players he could rely on to be better than most in every game they togged out for – Tadhg Furlong, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and, for a while, Jamie Heaslip. When Ireland swept all before them in 2018, you could add Tadhg Furlong, Dan Leavy and Jacob Stockdale to the list.

Andy Farrell now has more frontliners excelling over a sustained period. In most games, since February 2021 when he started to get a real feel for this squad, he will have 10 to 12 guys that are ultra reliable.

Look back on most of the high stakes games Ireland have played over the past 30 months and you’ll see that mistakes may be made but they are rarely in a hole for a long period of time. If someone slips up, more often than not the next guy up will cover the crack.

Their biggest sustained dip was against New Zealand, at Eden Park last summer, when they conceded four tries in 17 frantic first half minutes. They lost Johnny Sexton to injury in the middle of that and lost their collective heads. It has not happened since.

They were tentative in the Grand Slam decider against England and were aided by a Freddie Steward red card that was later rescinded, after he clashed with Hugo Keenan. Even still, so many of the familiar faces had fine game. Looking back on our ratings from that game and here were the top performers:

Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki, Johnny Sexton, Dan Sheehan, Ryan Baird, Caelan Doris.

Baird has not yet forced himself into the starting XV on a consistent basis but is doing his part by logging very good games whenever he is called upon, from the start or from the bench.

The shame for Ireland is that Johnny Sexton will come into the World Cup lacking and competitive minutes since March and that Sheehan, one of those other scary consistency guys, is struggling with a foot injury that seems nerve related.

Right now, though, they are only small problems compared to some other nations. Everyone in this Ireland set-up works towards the bigger goal and not only know their roles, but what the men either side of them need, too.


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