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)
It’s a move I’ve been wanting to see for weeks, but injury has finally forced Eddie Jones’ hand with Dylan Harltey.
It’s been pretty obvious that he didn’t deserve his place in the side, let alone the captaincy, and now Jamie George finally has the opportunity to make that shirt his own. I think it’s going to have a really positive impact on the side.
As for who wears the armband, there is no better man in that squad than Owen Farrell. I got to know him when we toured with the Lions, and he is a really good bloke. He’s confident in a non-arrogant way, and a brilliant player. He is a leader of men, and someone you would go into battle for – I can only see him doing a fantastic job and hopefully being the skipper for a long time. He’ll be facing Mathieu Bastareaud this week and will be relishing that challenge – and I would back him every time the big Frenchman tries to run down his channel.
Jones has made a lot of changes in the side but when you look at some of the players, you can’t say it’s a big surprise. I like Mike Brown as a player but at international level he might have had his day. Anthony Watson is a class act and is a player for the future. Same goes for Ben Te’o, he’s such a powerful player with the ability to offload in the tackle and can bring something different to the centre.
France will be looking for a bit of consistency after their win over Italy. They had their off-field problems after the Scotland game and that almost typifies the lack of discipline they have been showing in games too. We’ve seen them give away so many silly penalties and they just can’t afford to do that against England.
I just don’t see France having enough in this one and I think England will run out winners by 10 points.
In Dublin the question for me is, can Scotland back up their win over England? They put in a great performance last time out and have received all the praise for that, while the players have been all over Instagram having a laugh and enjoying themselves, but that can’t be it for them. They can’t just win one game and everyone be happy about it.
I remember when we (Wales) lost in the World Cup semi-final and came home to a heroes’ welcome and everyone had nothing but good things to say about us. But we lost. I was anything but happy because I knew we had messed up the chance to play in the World Cup Final.
Scotland need to have the mentality that it is all about winning every game, and that starts against Ireland.
We know what Ireland can do, and to be in with a chance of winning, Scotland’s pack has to perform. Wales couldn’t manage it last time out, but you have to get on top of Ireland’s forwards. It’s a difficult thing to do but if Scotland can manage it, they have the backs that can cause trouble.
In truth, I don’t see that happening because Ireland have been too well-organised and well-coached to this point, and I see them winning by about eight points.
Finally, a new-look Wales, and it needed to be. It’s great to see changes, and even though they have shown a lot of positives in the last couple of games they have lost them both.
In James Davies, we are finally seeing the man who has arguably been the best player in Wales with Scarlets for the last few years get his chance on the international stage.
He is a fantastic talent and I don’t know why it hasn’t come sooner – it’s a bit annoying really because he has got everything as a player; great handling and offloading, tackling, jackalling – he ticks every box and I can’t wait to see him run out against Italy.
George North is back in too, and I want to see him with his hands on the ball as much as possible. When I played with him and Alex Cuthbert we always wanted them coming in off nine, ten and 12, getting involved and that’s exactly what George has to do this weekend.
I always enjoyed playing against Italy, and there was time when it was a pretty decent battle but in the last couple of years they have really gone downhill.
I used to love hearing their anthem, especially away from home, and then taking on the likes of Sergio Parisse who I had some great battles with down the years. We played against each other from under-21 level and we were always having our little fights but there was a professional respect between us.
Now you look at Italy and things are a bit of a mess. It’s a no-win situation playing them now because if you win by 50 points it’s expected, win by less and it’s disappointing, lose to them and it’s the end of the world.
That said, this should be a comfortable day for Wales, with a win by 40 points.
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