Lowe, Keenan, and Hansen.

Ireland's brilliant, creative back three central to World Cup hopes

Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, and Mack Hansen were excellent against England.

IF A REMINDER was even needed, this was a convincing one.

Do Ireland have the best back three in the world? We could debate that for a few hours in a cosy snug somewhere, but there’s no doubt that Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, and James Lowe are perfectly tailored to how Ireland play.

Their performances in yesterday’s 29-10 World Cup warm-up win against England were excellent, on both sides of the ball.

Let’s start with the defensive work because it’s easy to overlook when Ireland’s back three are so good in attack. Hansen and Lowe have had to work hard in this area of the game because the demands placed on Ireland’s wings are so tough. They are often left in numbers-down situations where they have to be aggressive in shutting down the ball.

We know that Lowe had teething issues defensively at Test level and was dropped early on in his Ireland career, but he has worked hard on his analysis and on the training ground with defence coach Simon Easterby.

Hansen has also been honest in saying his defending is still a work in progress but his reads yesterday were excellent. He closed down the English attack on several occasions by shooting up for ball-and-all tackles or forcing the ball-carrier back inside, giving his team-mates turnover chances.

Hansen was imperious in the air, dealing with a fair bit of traffic from the English kicking game down Ireland’s right. The Connacht man never looked flustered as he assessed how much space he had to claim the ball. With Englishmen closing in, he rose to give himself more time but when he sensed a counter-attacking opportunity he stayed closer to the ground. He’s intuitive like that.

Lowe also showed decisiveness in his defence on the edge, while Keenan was as assured as ever when called upon defensively. He is one of the best scrambling defenders around, as he showed again in the first half yesterday.

james-lowe-celebrates-scoring-a-try James Lowe celebrates his try. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

George Ford hacked the ball down into the Irish 22 and it looked concerning until you saw that it was Keenan who was sprinting back. Though it was a tricky situation that could have gone badly wrong, there was never that concern with Keenan in the vicinity.

He too was steady under England’s predictable kicking game, but that’s pretty much taken for granted now.

Each of Ireland’s back three had delightful involvements in attack, as we’ve also come to expect. They’re all smart, calm decision-makers who sense where opportunities will be and where their team needs them.

All three are happy to step up as first receivers and can pass accurately. They’re all capable of offloads, with Lowe and Keenan both delivering in that regard in the build-up to Garry Ringrose’s first-half try. On the next phase, Lowe had a brilliant catch-pass from right to left to release Peter O’Mahony into space. And when Ireland came back to the right, it was Hansen who fired a pinpoint cross-kick for Ringrose to score. 

There aren’t too many wings who slot so fluidly into that kind of spot but Hansen is a player who breaks the shackles of expectations about what a wing should offer. He and Lowe are always roaming and scheming, but never without discipline. They don’t just desert their wings unless there’s cover from one of the forwards or another back, keen as Ireland are to constantly stretch the defence.

Lowe’s power as a ball-carrier is useful for Ireland, notably when he is out on his left edge. Witness his carry just before Ireland broke through in midfield for Bundee Aki to score in the first half. Hansen had claimed a high ball and then Ringrose’s pass put Lowe space down the left.

Lowe could have cut back inside but he backed his power and balance on the outside. While he didn’t completely beat his man, Lowe bossed the contact and his decision to go outside stretched the English defence. Ireland picked off one of the holes on the way back into midfield.

mack-hansen-goes-over-to-score-a-try-despite-joe-marchant Mack Hansen finishes a try for Ireland. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Hansen took his try well out on the right after a nice pass from Ross Byrne over the top, while Lowe finished off an earlier wide pass by Byrne on the left. Ireland’s wings are about more than try-scoring but it’s always pleasing to get in on the act. Happily, centurion Keith Earls also notched one after come on for Lowe, who Ireland boss Andy Farrell indicated had passed his HIA before being permanently replaced.

Ireland’s back three are always integral to the Irish kicking game and there were some nice contributions in that regard too, particularly a howitzer of an exit from Lowe just after that time Keenan covered back. Lowe even kicked with his right foot at one stage.

This was a superb first outing of the season for Ireland’s back three as they look towards the World Cup.

If Ireland are going to win it, Keenan, Lowe, and Hansen will have a huge say.

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