Tom O’Toole’s 19-minute cameo, the Ulster gag, may not have made headlines after Ireland’s stunning 32-19 victory over France. But its importance sheds light on why Andy Farrell’s side are now, for the first time, real contenders to win the World Cup this year.
The same can be said for the 24-minute electric contribution by 23-year-old Munster scrum half Craig Casey. The intensity of the Irish bench’s impact in the last quarter at Aviva Stadium capped off the match – with Bundee Aki, Iain Henderson and Jack Conan providing the hard nose to leave France ragged towards the end.
Yet it was the positive contributions of O’Toole and Casey that illustrated just how far the Irish talent now reaches, the absence of which proved fatal to their World Cup hopes during their 2015 and 2019 campaigns.
When you consider that O’Toole isn’t always the first choice in Ulster, and is behind both Tadhg Furlong and Finlay Bealham in the Irish pecking order at tighthead prop, his bull display was something to behold.
Casey is also third-choice behind Jamison Gibson-Park and Conor Murray for Ireland’s No. 9 jersey, but he played with a pace that ensured Ireland’s performance ended on a blistering note to dash any hopes of a late comeback in to destroy France.
Ireland had gone into the game without four of their established players – Dan Sheehan, Furlong, Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw, all of whom would be sure to start if fit tomorrow if a Lions side played tomorrow, and also lost their talisman leader Johnny Sexton suffered a groin injury after 45 minutes.
Yet the absentees did not seem to have a negative impact on their performance level. The second half may not have quite matched the clinical brilliance of the first, the best 40 minutes of Six Nations rugby there has been – it was inevitable that there would be a reaction from France – but even in the extreme testing, Ireland found a different level than their game.
The dream scenario for Farrell is that when his carefully managed team is almost fully fit, it will have the depth and robustness to meet the unique demands of a World Cup campaign for the first time.
In 2019, victory over Scotland was followed by defeat to Japan after Sexton was ruled out and Joe Schmidt was not confident enough to rotate his side despite the exhausting conditions.
Four years earlier, the Irish side’s shallowness was further exposed when after a sensational but exhausting victory over France in the group stage, Schmidt’s makeshift side were blown away by Argentina in the quarter-finals.
These issues have not been resolved by chance, but are a result of the Irish Rugby Football Union’s strategic planning by their performance director David Nucifora and man management and coaching development by Farrell.
The draw for the World Cup has not been kind to Ireland. They will face world champions South Africa and a resurgent Scotland in the pool stage, with only two teams progressing, and then the prospect of France or New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
Farrell knows the magnitude of the challenge ahead. But with the likes of O’Toole and Casey expanding his options, he’ll be heading to France with the most impressive arsenal to have left these shores.