“They typified our performance in terms of our energy, those two guys led it in many ways.”
Johnny Sexton has enjoyed a box-seat to Will Connors and Hugo Keenan ripping it up, in training and in matches with Leinster, for the past few seasons. On Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, the Italians felt what he knew was coming.
Italian coach Franco Smith and captain Luca Bigi both referred to Ireland’s suffocating line-speed throughout their 50-17 reversal. Smith spoke about how Ireland were able to bring a relentless, harrying pressure that led to mistakes and openings. Connors, Caelan Doris and Tadhg Beirne were the chief tormentors but every Irish played was clued in.
While they will still be kicking themselves for conceding a late try to Paolo Gabrisi, Ireland brought great intensity to a match they were expected to win but still had to win big to be in with a championship shout. A 15-minute lull at the start of the second half, with Ireland 24-3 up already, and it took a try from Edoardo Padovani to get them going again.
“Win the next moment,” Sexton told his teammates, and they did. And several more after that.
Following the game, Sexton spoke about the intense 15 vs. 15 training session, on Wednesday, that got this Ireland team primed for the game.
“Hugo got a couple of tries and could have had another one, a couple of outstanding finishes. The edge he provided, that work off the ball, ball in the air, all the things you’d expect of a top-class back three player, he provided those. I’m delighted for him.
“There’s some big competition in and around him. The team we were playing against on Wednesday in training was pretty impressive – James Lowe and Keith Earls on the wings, Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell and Stuart McCloskey floating in there, some big competition in the backs.
“Then you have Josh [van der Flier] and Will going at it in the back row and that’s what we want, competition and people pushing each other.”
Add in Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne as outhalves for the ‘Reserve XV’ and that is one hell of a backline to face. Earls is coming back from injury and was able to take part, while this was another reason why Ireland coach Andy Farrell kept Lowe in camp, even though he is a couple of weeks shy of being fully Irish qualified.
IRELAND’S ‘RESERVE’ XV
15. Robbie Henshaw
14. Keith Earls
13. Chris Farrell
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park
1. Ed Byrne
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Quinn Roux
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan
The likes of John Ryan, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty and Shane Daly all got some reps in too as the First XV were given a tough work-out.
Asked for some further insight to that Wednesday training session, which took place shortly after the squad learned who would be starting against Italy, Farrell was effusive in his praise of the players that missed out and who still gave it their all in that session.
“Yeah that’s how we trained, 15 versus 15 on Wednesday, and there was a bit of contact in there as well. It was very competitive.
“On Wednesday, we tell the lads the team and we see what attitude and fight they’ve got to want to get over the disappointment and try to help the team. They’ve got to be team members, first and foremost and they are a big part of the reason why we got the performance today.”
Under Joe Schmidt, and Declan Kidney before him, the Ireland team was often decided on the Monday and all preparation went into making sure that XV was raring to go.
Farrell is taking a different path and hoping the uncertainty over selection translates into genuine competition for places, and intensity to hang onto the jersey when the match arrives.