Analysis: Back row lays foundation for Ireland success

Will COnnors (1)
Going into Saturday’s clash against Italy, Ireland’s back row had 44 Test caps between them – and CJ Stander was responsible for 42 of them.

Going into Saturday’s clash against Italy, Ireland’s back row had 44 Test caps between them – and CJ Stander was responsible for 42 of them.

For Caelan Doris and Will Connors, 22 and 24 years of age respectively, this was a chance to show Ireland supporters what they were capable of and they seized it with both hands.

Both performed as if they were seasoned international performers, making light of their relative inexperience, as the pair took their Leinster form into the famous green jersey.

Connors, in particular, enjoyed a dream debut. His tackling prowess was no secret to those who have watched him at club level – Connors was the Guinness PRO14’s leading tackler in 2019/20 with 195 – and he set the tone by crunching into Carlo Canna early on.

The debutant won the first of his three turnovers on 21 minutes and was still going by the time the clock ticked past 80 minutes, chopping down Jake Polledri; Connors’ 20 tackles – according to stats Powered by AWS – ensured he edged out Tadhg Beirne to sit top of the Ireland charts.

He also made 35 metres from 10 carries and applied icing to the cake with the try which secured Ireland a bonus point on the hour mark.

“Every boy’s dream is to play for Ireland,” he said afterwards, having picked up the man of the match award.

“I’ve had a few injury setbacks over the last while but constantly this was the goal, where I wanted to go. I kept trucking away.

“I knew my time would come if I just kept at it. It is an unbelievably competitive position but that’s just the beauty of it – we are all pushing each other incredibly hard.”

One swallow does not make a summer, and competition within the Ireland pack is fierce, but this was a hugely encouraging start to Connors’ international career.

On the opposite flank, Doris enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a solid display. The blindside made his own international bow earlier in the Championship but, unlike Connors, his did not quite go to plan as injury forced him off inside four minutes against Scotland.

He appeared for 20 minutes off the bench at Twickenham in Round 3 but this was his first real chance to make an impression on the Guinness Six Nations and he did so in style.

The Leinster man played the first 67 minutes in Dublin, making 48 metres from six carries to go with his two turnovers won and seven tackles.

The reigning Guinness PRO14 Next-Gen Star of the Season will hope to retain his place for what is set to be a sterner test in Paris on Super Saturday, with Ireland’s fate in their own hands as they go in search of the Championship crown.

Rounding off the back three was Stander, the experienced head between two fresh faces, and the No.8 made it a hat-trick of dominant displays from the back three.

The Munster star scored the hosts’ first try and his 21 carries – which saw him gain 109 metres – were more than any other Ireland player on the day.

The trio who started on Saturday know they will have to stay on top of their game to stay in the side, such is Ireland’s remarkable strength in depth in the back three.

Peter O’Mahony gave a reminder of his qualities off the bench against Italy, setting up Bundee Aki’s try with a neat offload, while Josh van der Flier – man of the match in last season’s Guinness PRO14 Final – did not make the matchday squad.

Jack Conan will continue to apply pressure on Stander for the No.8 shirt and there are plenty more contenders waiting in the wings.

One of them, Dan Leavy, made his eagerly-awaited return from an 18-month injury lay-off for Leinster on Friday night and the 26-year-old will hope to add to his 11 caps before too long.

It all adds up to a welcome selection headache for Andy Farrell – and the three in possession could have done little more to strengthen their cases on Saturday.