Ireland began the post-Johnny Sexton era with one of their greatest victories – and new No 10 Jack Crowley was at its heart. RW assesses his performance in Marseille
On an opening weekend of colour and crackle, one individual stood out. Jack Crowley was far from perfect in Ireland’s sensational 38-17 win in Marseille, but there was a conviction in his performance that suggests Ireland will not have to mourn the loss of Johnny Sexton.
Like the legendary Sexton back in 2010, Crowley was making his first Six Nations start at the age of 24 and in a team that had won the Grand Slam the previous year.
Sexton marked his bow at Twickenham by making two tries in a 20-16 win, the first with an exquisite grubber kick on the run for Tommy Bowe. When Crowley tried something similar early on in Marseille on Friday night, he overhit the kick by some margin.
In the same half, we saw him have a kick charged down after just 80 seconds, bend a banana kick straight to French hands, and send another kick out on the full.
Mistakes are inevitable, indeed almost welcome. If a stand-off isn’t making them, he probably isn’t taking enough risks. Crowley didn’t shrink, he remained unfazed – even with the missed opportunity when it seemed he couldn’t fail to put Bundee Aki in for a try as the pair bore down on Jonathan Danty. The pass, possibly brushing Danty’s fingertips, went slightly behind Aki and the chance was lost.
But Crowley kept coming. And then came the moment.
Sean Holley, analysing Crowley for Rugby World, highlighted the Munster ten’s ability to show the ball flat to the line, subtly holding it as if about to pass but then delaying for a split-second. It’s both clever and brave because your ribs will take a pounding.
On 29 minutes, we saw this in action. Crowley deceived France with his eyes, threatening to pass out the back but instead putting Tadhg Beirne – running a superb unders line – through a hole and straight to the try-line. Crowley was clattered by Peato Mauvaka as he passed. 10-3 became 17-3 and Ireland were on their way to their biggest win in France.
Before the match, Brian O’Driscoll had put Crowley’s day in context. “Today isn’t the be-all and end-all for Crowley. It’s an opportunity to build huge confidence in his own performance, to show he can be the new Jack Crowley, not the Johnny Sexton replacement. He just has to control, organise, kick well tactically. Be a facilitator for others. He doesn’t have to pull a rabbit out of a hat tonight.”
All true but the try that he created for Beirne? That felt like a rabbit out of a hat. And when we had wondered whether his nerve would hold up over the kicking tee, in such an intimidating arena, Crowley delivered there too.
In a near flawless goal-kicking performance, the man from Innishannon landed six out of seven attempts, including a trio of testers from the touchline.
He does occasionally run things close with the shot clock – one recent effort for Munster against Northampton should have been disallowed because the clock had reached zero before he struck the ball.
What else did we see from Crowley? His restarts were deep and straight down the middle, restricting the distance that France could make on their exits. The hang time of his kicks was impressive, as these smart-ball stats from Sage (below) show, and his average pass speed (33.1 km/h) was quicker than all of the other fly-halves on duty at the weekend.
Average restart kick hang time (s)
Jack Crowley 4.0
George Ford 3.9
Sam Costelow 3.8
Matthieu Jalibert 3.7
Paolo Garbisi 3.6
Finn Russell 3.6
There was just a glimpse of Crowley’s considerable running threat, a couple of darts for the line. More prevalent was the facilitating that O’Driscoll spoke about, his feeding of his back-rows in midfield or, on one occasion, of Jamison Gibson-Park, looping round him off a scrum.
The calibre of Ireland’s nine and 12, Gibson-Park and Aki, makes life easier for Crowley, so too the huge boot of James Lowe, perhaps the best left-footed kicking option in the global game. There is quality all around Crowley; you look at what Caelan Doris gets through in a match and wonder how he isn’t named Man of the Match every time.
Not long ago, Crowley turned down the chance to join Ronan O’Gara at La Rochelle, the European champions. Rob Kearney, the former Ireland full-back, had a coffee with Crowley and was struck by his utter confidence, his belief that he was the right man to succeed Sexton. You can hear what Kearney made of that meeting by watching this clip below.
After what Ireland did on Friday night, it’s not too early to talk of them winning back-to-back Grand Slams – something never managed before in this century. Three of their remaining four games are in Dublin, so England away in round four looks like the biggest obstacle.
Very few would bet against them now. And if Jack Crowley can ride that wave, he will quickly propel himself front and centre into the conversation about who should be the Test fly-half on next year’s Lions tour to Australia.
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