James Ryan is early proof that you don’t necessarily require advanced age to make sound, mature judgements. The Leinster lock is only halfway to 50, but thrust into the Irish captaincy in Paris last Saturday, he was point man for the biggest call of the day, perhaps even the Six Nations itself.
And he got it right.
It was a pleasant stir of the senses to be near ground level at the Stade de France. To savour the nuances of test rugby. Wow. My head was blown away with some moments.
The ferocity of the ball-carrying, where Uini Atonio excelled. But in more than one respect, I thought James Ryan had a huge game, all around the pitch, working himself to the bone with hard carries and brutal tackling.
I would also commend his captaincy in the 72nd minute.
Let’s interrogate the road not travelled in that moment. Ireland, six points down, decide to kick for the corner. They may have secured a second maul try, but France are now forewarned. Ireland drive over for five, now they are minus one.
For all his accuracy on the day, Joey Carbery is far from guaranteed to kick that touchline conversion. If he misses, Ireland are far more deflated than jogging back the pitch with three points from a gimme penalty.
There was a lot of work involved in going into the corner, scoring a try, and converting.
Eight minutes is a long time in test rugby. And the portents were positive for Ryan and his players. Ireland had ripped France apart in the phase in that second half and went 50m up the pitch a few times.
If there is 75-76 minutes on the clock, then Ryan is having a different conversation with Carbery. He is estimating that may not be enough time for two penalties.
With 72 minutes on the clock, the Irish captain knows a second penalty gives them a draw. Suddenly, is that something we turn our nose up at in Paris?
Remember, Ireland were 22-7 down early in the second half, so if the draw is the minimum you are getting, you sign for it. To the reactionaries who suggest that’s a defeatist mentality, I would say it’s a realistic assessment of where Ireland had come from.
Here’s the thing: A team with less self-confidence than Ireland would have gone to the corner. A team with solid foundation and belief in what they are doing would feel that eight minutes to reel in a six-point deficit is very doable. This wasn’t a case of rolling the dice, kick to the corner, because, to reiterate, that conversion was no gimme and you are down one.
Perhaps some forget that it was 10-0 early, 19-7 at half-time, and 22-7 early in the third quarter. The fundamental point of difference in the game is that France led from minute zero to the death, which is a huge statement in a test game.
When Ireland got it back to 22-21, the French reaction spoke volumes. They are a different proposition these days and they were braced for Ireland.
Rarely, and I stress rarely, have I seen Antoine Dupont boot the ball away in exhilaration after scoring a try like he did in the opening minutes. Mentally, France were at fever pitch for Ireland.
The French backs are a lovely cocktail of contrasts, exemplified by the wings, Damien Penaud and Gabin Villiere — the agility and speed of Clermont’s Penaud allied to the terrier qualities of Villiere, who scraps for everything. What Penaud did to Hugo Keenan in that tight 5m channel — wow, wow, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that done to the Leinster man.
Andy Farrell will be hugely frustrated with the Irish start. To put 10-0 in a test match in context, if Ireland were to score the next 17 points, it is still only a one score game.
It’s a brilliant platform to work from and, conversely for Ireland, a deep hole to dig themselves out of.
But there are still some very interesting takeaways for Farrell and the players. Being in the ground, you got a feeling that the supporters in green believe in this Irish team.
They could see that Ireland are dangerous with the ball, even away in Paris, that the phase game was sharp and threatening. We take for granted the character and the doggedness stuff but now we seem to have stirred something really tasty into the mix.
That Gibson-Park try is a lovely score. And for all my reluctance to indulge in hypothesis, a fit, on-form Johnny Sexton probably gets Ireland over the line in that game.
For all that, the Joey Carbery performance was another wow. He performed incredibly well considering his build-up. To deliver in that environment with the lack of rugby he had available to him in his legs and head was very composed.
It was a great starting point for building a test career at 10. And it has become a reference point for when he hits sticky patches. If Far