Ashley Crowden/INPHO Ireland flanker Peter O'Mahony.
# Up and Running
Farrell gets the chaos he craves in Cardiff as Ireland pass first test of a huge year
The visitors played some superb rugby despite the absence of key players.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 4th 2023, 10:12 PM

ANDY FARRELL IS quickly finding out that he doesn’t always need to go searching for the chaos he craves. Sometimes it just arrives at your feet.

The Ireland boss is acutely aware that come the World Cup, one setback can soon set the dominos tumbling, and he’s spent much of the last year doing his best to future-proof against any possible hiccups in France.

It’s why he wanted two games against the Maori All Blacks wedged into the three-game Test series in New Zealand last summer. It’s why he booked an Ireland A side in for a night with a New Zealand XV on the eve of the headline November Test against South Africa, and why he decided to take on coaching both teams that week to boot. You wouldn’t blame some of his support staff for rolling their eyes.

That habit of seeking out challenges carried into the opening weekend of this year’s Six Nations, with Farrell stating he wanted the roof to be closed at the Principality Stadium today so his players could “sample the atmosphere” at one of the most raucous venues around.

Farrell doesn’t want anything to come too easy for his team. There’s something admirable about such self-assuredness.

Yet the mood music can change when the chaos is out of your control. On Thursday we found out Tadhg Furlong had failed to sufficiently recover from a calf problem in time to face the Welsh. In came Finlay Bealham for his first-ever Six Nations start. Not ideal, but not the end of the world given the Connacht tighthead’s continued development. Farrell’s take was that Furlong’s absence was “great for us.” A classic Farrell answer. Embrace the disruption.

Saturday morning brought more upheaval. Jamison Gibson-Park was out, so Conor Murray was bumped up to starting team. As kick-off inched closer, Cian Healy was also pulled, with Dave Kilcoyne taking his place on the bench.

These were significant changes, particularly when you zoomed out to consider the wider picture.

Johnny Sexton hadn’t played since cracking his cheekbone off Jarrad Butler on New Year’s Day. James Lowe’s last outing was on St Stephen’s Day. Robbie Henshaw’s wrist injury opened the door for Stuart McCloskey to start a Six Nations game for the first time since his debut in 2016. Throw in the presence of Ross Byrne and Tom O’Toole on the bench, and what has become a very settled looking matchday squad suddenly had a different look and feel to it.

Murray’s promotion immediately carried the potential to colour the whole narrative around today’s game. It’s safe to say that not an insignificant portion of supporters feel the team has outgrown the vastly-experienced 33-year-old.  

conor-murray-with-taulupe-faletau Dan Sheridan / INPHO Conor Murray takes on Taulupe Faletau. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Speaking on Virgin Media, Rob Kearney outlined why he felt Gibson-Park’s absence would impact Ireland negatively: “He gives Sexton that extra second on the ball.”

Murray offers something different. A calm head. Control under pressure. Ideal traits for the Cardiff cauldron, perhaps. After all, he was in the saddle alongside Sexton the last time Ireland won in Cardiff, 10 long years ago. 

They now have another Cardiff success on their CVs and the pair were instrumental to Ireland’s opening score as the visitors made a blistering start.

Murray started the game with the tempo those same Ireland supporters crave, scrambling through the bodies to deliver quick ball, allowing Sexton to slip a lovely pass inside before Caelan Doris broke through the Welsh barrier. The perfect start.

Sexton was soon clipping over his second conversion after James Ryan powered over from close range, this time Bealham stepping in to play scrum-half and deliver the final pop pass. Spot the problem, step in and solve it. 

The Connacht man’s confidence will also have been boosted by two big shoves in a couple of early scrums.

The good moments kept coming. Lowe banished some of the ghosts from his last visit to Cardiff by plucking an intercept and running home unchallenged. His next act was a massive turnover penalty with Ireland under pressure in their 22. Big plays from a man who was recently pulled all the way back to New Zealand for personal reasons. 

It was a stunning opening 30 minutes from Ireland but the half ended on a bum note as – Murray – who was otherwise excellent – opted to kick the ball away rather than run the clock down in one of the few errors made by Farrell’s team, and one that almost proved costly. 

gareth-thomas-and-jac-morgan-with-tadhg-beirne-and-finlay-bealham Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Wales' Gareth Thomas and Jac Morgan with Tadhg Beirne and Finlay Bealham of Ireland. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

At half-time the visitors led 27-3 at a stunned Principality. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised. This was, after all, the top ranked side in the world playing a team who lost nine of 12 Tests last year.

Too good be to true? Not quite, but it proved too good to sustain. Irish teams don’t get easy rides at this stadium and one imagines the half hour after the restart will be studied and referenced throughout the rest of Ireland’s season.

The short notes will read that a limited Wales side grew into the game and while Ireland’s discipline slipped, they managed to weather the storm – Liam Williams’ try shortly after the restart all Wales had to show for their huffing and puffing, with their execution lacking and their lineout off-colour.

It wasn’t pretty but Ireland worked hard to keep the home side at arms’ length – another turnover from the outstanding Doris, some good scramble from Murray, a vital tackle from Hansen on Rio Dier. Any sense of flow was long gone as the scrap became chaotic, frantic, and even a little desperate in place.

Big players stood up and Hugo Keenan might just have been the pick of the bunch – to think fullback was a potential problem position when Farrell took charge.

There are no problem positions anymore. Bundee Aki brought punch off the bench and the Ireland boss also sent in Craig Casey to see out the final 15 minutes. The scrum-half was soon swallowed up at the back of the scrum as Wales keep Farrell’s men pinned into their own half. More danger, this time snuffed out by Sexton with his last act before being replaced by Ross Byrne, another replacement who made an instant impact. Farrell might feel he could have done with that energy sooner. 

Yet for all the punches Wales threw, they just couldn’t connect. 

Finally Ireland found the surge they needed to put the result beyond doubt, the excellent Josh van der Flier slipping under the posts for the bonus-point score after good work by the Ireland pack.

A glance at the scoreline, and it almost felt like the previous 30 minutes had never happened. A win in Cardiff is good going any year, a bonus point win even more so. To head for home thinking it could have been even better is in itself a sign of just how far Farrell has brought this team. To do all that without some pillars of the starting team is a valuable early-season reminder that this squad can take on a couple of bangs and still deliver.

A great start to Ireland’s Six Nations campaign, but not the perfect start. Would Farrell want it any other way? 

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First published today at 5.30pm 

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