Johnny Sexton drops Ireland to victory in France
Ireland were coasting in their opening-round clash against France in Paris, that was until Teddy Thomas scythed off the wing, bisected the cover and skipped between the posts. But just when Ireland looked to have snatched defeats from the jaws of victory for the second time running in France, up popped Sexton with a nerveless, 45-metre drop-goal that won the day. Ireland built some 41 phases in a final-play winning move that extended into the third minute of overtime. Ireland hardly merited victory, but on such stunning rescue missions are title triumphs founded.
Jacob Stockdale seals victory over Wales with a fine intercept score
Peter O’Mahony conjures a fine cover tackle and turnover against Scotland
Though Ireland eventually subdued Scotland by four tries to one for a 28-8 victory, the visitors bungled a host of clear-cut scoring chances that could have entirely altered the game’s complexion. Munster flanker O’Mahony produced a momentous performance of grit and industry throughout, battling manfully to nullify Scotland’s clear contact-area advantage. O’Mahony pulled off a fine stunning tackle on wing Blair Kinghorn that saved a try-scoring chance, but not finished there though, he leapt to his feet and forced a turnover penalty. At the top of the second-half, this was a vital intervention, with Ireland only leading 14-3.
Sexton fires a bullet pass to send Stockdale in for his first try against Wales
Ireland have spent large swathes of this tournament bulldozing through phases but at points struggling to finish off moves swiftly. No such trouble against the Welsh, with five tries the fruit of an attack-heavy performance. There could be no better tour de force than Sexton’s flat, fast and defence-splitting pass that sent Stockdale walking into the corner for his first of two tries in the 37-27 victory over Warren Gatland’s side either.
Garry Ringrose’s runaround sends Stockdale in for a second score against Scotland
Fit-again Ringrose had only played an hour’s Rugby since January with Leinster before this encounter. It never showed. Not one jot. Instead the 23-year-old scythed and stepped through the Scotland defence on several occasions. And then he forced a runaround off Bundee Aki to fire a bullet pass to send Stockdale home for a score that all-but sealed Ireland’s 28-8 win over Scotland.
A clinical performance from this truly outstanding Ireland side whose 28-8 victory over Scotland saw them claim the Six Nations trophy with a week to spare – after Eddie Jones’ England fell to a shock loss in Paris against France.
Here are our takeaways from the win in Dublin:
THE UNSTOPPABLE JACOB STOCKDALE
The 21-year-old Ulster winger has lit up this year’s tournament with his electrifying runs and he now leads the try scorer’s tally with six after a double against Scotland – his two tries taking Ireland halfway towards claiming the crucial bonus point.
The game hung in the balance on 22 minutes with the visitors clinging to a 3-0 lead when up popped Stockdale to take a perfectly timed intercept from Peter Horne on half way and sprint away to score the opening try.
Then with Scotland still in the match right on half time, again Stockdale was there to spin through a tackle from Blair Kinghorn and score his second try of the game, sixth of the tournament – and 10th in just eight Tests.
Those sorts of stats we are used to associating with great All Blacks wingers but with his speed, size and finishing instincts Stockdale has all the potential to develop into a winger just as good as Doug Howlett, Joe Rokocoko or Julian Savea.
He even won an important turnover penalty when Scotland looked dangerous at the start of the second half.
With talent such as Conor Murray, Jonny Sexton and Garry Ringrose inside him there will be plenty of tryscoring chances for 1.91m, 102kg Stockdale in the months and years ahead.
RINGROSE’S STUNNING RETURN
Peter Stringer spoke recently about the difference between the current Ireland side and the great Ireland teams of a decade ago was depth.
And that was seen perfectly in the return from injury of 23-year-old Ringrose.
Ireland had played the first three rounds without the talented Leinster centre with Robbie Henshaw playing the first two matches before he too was injured and then Chris Farrell stepped in with an outstanding performance against Wales.
But then Farrell too was injured meaning Ringrose, who had played just an hour of club rugby since January, was fast tracked into the starting XV.
Ringrose fitted in like he had never been away with an outstanding all-round performance which would have seen him rivalling Rob Kearney for man-of-the-match honours.
He played a full 80 minutes, making 91 metres (second only to Kearney on 140) from 12 carries and beating five defenders (equal top with Keith Earls). He also made 11 tackles.
The Scots blew three cast iron chances to score – and by the type of players you would expect to usually nail such opportunities
Firstly Huw Jones – so outstanding against England a fortnight ago – did everything right on 28 minutes, chipping over the top and regathering. The line was at Scotland’s mercy with Stuart Hogg on the inside but Jones inexplicably threw the pass a metre in front of Hogg and the chance went begging.
Hogg was at fault on 50 minutes just ten metres out from the Ireland line. The Scots had a huge overlap and all the fullback had to do was find an unmarked Blair Kinghorn outside him but the pass was wayward and the chance went begging.
Then on 54 minutes Peter Horne was clear through with Jones on his left shoulder with a clear run to the line but Horne threw a wild ball which went over Kinghorn’s head again and into touch.
This trio of chances may not have changed the result but if Scotland had taken even one it may have greatly altered the momentum of the match.
The Azzurri look set to finish bottom of the Six Nations table for a 13th time in 19 seasons, having suffered three successive defeats ahead of this weekend’s Cardiff clash and then hosting Scotland next Saturday.
But Italy boss O’Shea is undeterred as he continues with the job of what he calls “fixing Italian Rugby.”
They have had their moments this season, notably against England, and seen players like full-back Matteo Minnozzi and flanker Sebastian Negri leave an impressive mark on the tournament.
Ultimately, though, Italy have conceded 136 points and 18 tries across their three games, suggesting that another whitewash beckons.
“We have to perform to our maximum all the time and understand we will be under massive pressure,” O’Shea said.
“This is all part of a huge learning process with a huge group of young guys who will learn what’s needed. This isn’t the PRO14 – this is another level.
“I am really proud of the impact players like Matteo Minnozzi and Sebastian Negri and others have made during this championship.
“Piece by piece our job is fixing Italian Rugby, and piece by piece we are going to put together a side which will learn, which will get better and which will get fitter.
“We will grow and grow. It isn’t easy, but if sport was easy then everybody would be able to do it.
“We will work on Sunday to see whether we can get ourselves into a position that an energy moment will go our way at the right time. And then you never know.”
Much has been made in some quarters of Wales head coach Warren Gatland making 10 changes for Italy’s visit, with flanker James Davies being handed a Test debut and centre
Owen Watkin and hooker Elliot Dee featuring for the first time in a Six Nations starting XV.
But Gatland has also called up three British and Irish Lions Test players in George North, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, who captains a Wales team seeking a 12th successive victory over Italy.
O’Shea added: “It’s great when you have got the ability to bring in that quality.
“And I am looking forward to watching Elliott Dee play because I’ve watched him playing for the Dragons and I really like him as a player.
“They are an outstanding side. Gats is such an intelligent bloke. He’s made changes, but the spine of the team is so strong.
“The spine the whole way through has a massive amount of experience. They will have no issues.”
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Owen Watkin, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Steff Evans, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau (c), 7 James Davies, 6 Justin Tipuric, 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Cory Hill, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Nicky Smith
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Seb Davies, 20 Ellis Jenkins, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Rhys Patchell, 23 Leigh Halfpenny
Italy: 15 Matteo Minozzi, 14 Tommaso Benvenuti, 13 Giulio Bisegni, 12 Tommaso Castello, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Marcello Violi, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Maxime Mbanda, 6 Sebastian Negri, 5 Dean Budd, 4 Alessandro Zanni, 3 Simone Ferrari, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti
Replacements: 16 Oliviero Fabiani, 17 Nicola Quaglio, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Federico Ruzza, 20 Giovanni Licata, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Carlo Canna, 23 Jayden Hayward
Date: Sunday, March 11
Venue: Principality Stadium
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Andrew Brace (Ireland)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)