A dogged Munster beat the reigning champions in front of a roaring Thomond park, a dominant Leinster impose themselves on the heralded Northampton, Ulster show fight and no little skill to win (again) dramatically against Harlequins, whilst Connacht, who have a few scalps already, come close in Gloucester – all looks rosy in Irish rugby again, no?
Well, look a little closer and the picture is considerably more complex.
Both Connacht and Munster face an uphill battle to qualify for the knockouts. Munster in particular looked heavy legged and lacking invention, although the conditions clearly impacted that. They were dour, a performance characterized by Man of the Match C.J. Stander, who made 17 carries without really going anywhere, and their linchpin Conor Murray, who was everywhere without really doing anything of note.
Furthermore, of the fly halves that went to the World Cup, only Jack Carty is currently fit, and he is not playing particularly well. Ten is a position that Ireland have to figure out, Sexton cannot be relied upon for the next four years, he will stifle the progress of younger talents like Carbery.
On the other hand, there are clearly positives to take away from this weekend for Ireland, most coming from Leinster and Ulster. Jordan Larmour deserves to start at full back in the Six Nations. It may be a cliche, but it rings true nonetheless – if he was a New Zealander we would rave about him far more.
Another youngster, Caelen Dorris, at number eight, was incredibly impressive. His footwork and offloading ability are exactly what is needed for Ireland, both he and Conan should be above Stander in the pecking order at eight (although Stander at six would not be a bad option).
Ireland need to add options, players capable of big moments, big breaks, in Larmour and Dorris they have two top young talents who can do just that. Josh van der Flier may be more established, but he was inspired at the weekend, and should start for Ireland too.
In Belfast, John Cooney has been inspired for a number of seasons, but with Murray’s dip in form, he too deserves a starting international role come the spring. Selection wise, Ireland have been so stale, so lacking in ambition, this has to change if they are to progress.
They have to start jettisoning some of the players they have relied upon for so long. Ultimately, Conor Murray may well be the best nine in Ireland in four years time, but he needs to be made to fight for it, made to justify his selection. Too many players have been guaranteed their places for too long.
Bold decisions are needed – first of all for Andy Farrell is the captaincy. I would go for James Ryan, he seems the obvious choice. The next set of bold choices need to take place over the next few years. Players need to be slowly phased out. In that, Farrell could do worse than look to Eddie Jones for example, the way Jones phased out Hartley, Brown, Care and Robshaw was hugely impressive.
Ultimately, if Farrell isn’t bold, isn’t brave, the guard won’t change itself and no progress will be made.
Written by Joe Ronan.