After an early scare and heat so intense it took your breath away, Ireland did exactly what was expected against Romania in Bordeaux.
The start of a World Cup campaign in which they are favorites to win by 74 points and 12 tries brightened the day for the thousands of fans who endured long queues and arduous tram journeys to the Stade de Bordeaux in the eastern suburbs the city.
They had a hot and humid start to an afternoon that ended with joy, serenading their heroes for a job well done.
Irish fans dominated the 41,170-strong crowd, but many were still in their seats when Romania took the lead after two minutes and their lively scrum-half Gabriel Rupanu took advantage of lax defending to shoot over the goal.
This was part of a shaky start from Ireland which also saw the starting line-up creaking, but order was restored by half-time and Ireland led by 25 points.
Bundee Aki put in an impressive performance in Ireland’s win over Romania, scoring two tries
Johnny Sexton scored 24 points in the win, moving closer to the Irish scoring record
Tadhg Beirne was one of four Irish players who made multiple changes on Saturday
They faded in the second half as substitutes arrived and fatigue began to take its toll. But just as important as a routine win was keeping everyone fit.
Robbie Henshaw came off the bench late on, with Mack Hansen taking his place, but Bundee Aki was sensational in the middle and even if Henshaw recovers, he is unlikely to break the partnership between Aki and Garry Ringrose for the bigger challenges ahead.
Johnny Sexton stayed true to the form of his long career as he returned from a break for the umpteenth time to immediately reach his highest standards.
He scored two points as part of a 24-point haul and is now just ten points behind Ronan O’Gara’s overall Irish record in the points standings.
The playmaker was a real eye-catcher and while you have to take the opposition into account, it will have been great for Andy Farrell to see his most important player excel.
Another veteran ran amok as Peter O’Mahony finished the day with three tries, part of a record-breaking 12-try effort that surpassed Ireland’s old record of 10 World Cup tries set against Namibia in 2003.
The winning margin of 74 points also represents a new Irish record for this tournament, but the truth is that such a game is of limited value given the upcoming meetings with South Africa and Scotland.
It is the games that will decide this pool, together with the meeting of these two in Marseille tonight/tomorrow.
However, the significance of such a runout lies in the confidence it gives Farrell and his players for bigger days ahead.
Romania took the lead after two minutes when Gabriel Rupanu took advantage of lax defending
Peter O’Mahony finished the day with three tries in Ireland’s record-breaking haul of 12
Surviving under these conditions was also not an easy task. It has been a focus of planning throughout the summer, as long as the record-breaking temperatures here have not thrown the Irish organization into disarray.
Ireland: H. Keenan, K. Earls (M. Hansen 60), G. Ringrose, B. Aki, J. Lowe; J Sexton (captain, J Crowley 66)), J Gibson-Park (C Murray 60); A Porter (J Loughman 50), R Herring (R Kelleher 50), T Furlong (T O’Toole 50); J McCarthy, J Ryan (I Henderson 56); T Beirne, P O’Mahony, C Doris (J van der Flier 56).
PointsHe: Try – O’Mahony (3), Sexton (2), Aki (2), Beirne (2), Gibson Park, Herring, McCarthy Disadvantages: Sexton (8), Crowley (3)
Romania: M. Simionescu, N. Onutu, J. Tomane, F. Tangimana, T. Manumua (T. Gontineac 58); H Vaovasa (T Boldor 61), G Rupanu (A Conache 74); I Hartig (A Savin 49), O Cojocaru (F Bardasu 55), A Gordas (G Gajion 52); A Motoc, S Iancu (M Iftimiciuc 61); F Rosu, V Neculau, C Chirica (captain).
Goalscorers: Attempt – Rupanu Pen: Rupanu
Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
The extent of their planning was evident even before the anthems. The teams stood in a line in the sun, but the Irish players stepped a few meters forward into the shade of the stands, soon followed by the Romanians, while the mascots remained standing at kick-off in temperate temperatures of 34 degrees Celsius.
At the first water break, the Irish players were given drinks and ice packs from large coolers, and some players also had cold towels pressed to their necks.
The heat was truly incredible, and apart from the players, it was mainly the unfortunate fans who, because of their tickets, were sitting in the front seats of two stands exposed to direct light.
The sun was also part of Romania’s survival strategy as they aimed their restarts at the sunniest part of the field, forcing the Irish players to face the sun.
It was a clever survival tactic, but their best hope of staying close in the first half was for Ireland to settle in.
Aspects of their game that lagged in the warm-up still need attention, most obviously the line-up. Ireland lost three shots while Romania fiercely challenged every ball.
James Lowe hit two early balls wide, passes were misjudged and balls bounced off the heads of intended targets.
The lack of fluency was both understandable and frustrating, but the extent to which the heat was a factor cannot be underestimated.
Laptops got stuck in the shady press seats and phones wouldn’t charge. Locals gasped as September temperatures were 10 degrees higher than usual.
Lowe could be forgiven for misjudging his kicks, especially since he spent the first 40 minutes uninterrupted in the bright light.
The obvious jagged aspects of the first half will give Andy Farrell and his coaches plenty to do
After Gabriel Rupanu’s embarrassing opening try, Ireland responded with five tries before half-time. Jamison Gibson-Park, Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, the outstanding Bundee Aki and Sexton scored the goals, but as Sexton converted just before the half-time whistle he was tackled by Jason Tomane, a brother of his former Leinster team-mate Joe .
The contact didn’t appear to be significant, but as Sexton stood up, he held his left hand. It was a sight that sent shivers down even this cauldron’s spine, but he managed to prevent the conversion and when the half-time whistle blew he walked away unconcerned.
Sexton led Ireland back in the second half, where the gap between the teams continued to widen.
Rob Herring, O’Mahony, Aki, Joe McCarthy and Beirne again scored further points and with 30 minutes to play the benches began to empty.
The fans who had waited so long to get in were determined to stay and soak up the increasingly boisterous atmosphere.
Ireland’s performance was improving, the last vestiges of a Romanian challenge had long since faded and there were no new visits to the infirmary.
There is still a lot to do and the jagged edges evident in the first half will give Farrell and his coaches plenty to do before the trip to Nantes in six days.
But this was a start Farrell could have planned: there was still work to be done, but his captain and his talisman moved with the menace of before.
And after what happened in Paris on Friday evening, leading this group is even more valuable. The winners of Pool B will play against the runners-up in Pool A, which will certainly be New Zealand.
Given Sexton’s continued importance, keeping his captain fit and in shape is vital
It seems bizarre to consider this the least worst option, but France relied on a potent mix of pragmatism and panache to beat the All Blacks and have an Ireland-like power game at their best and with one fully operational Squad, would still find an enormous challenge.
So, as expected, the battle against the South Africans on September 23rd will be crucial.
It was a decent revision, but the biggest takeaway was the continued importance of Sexton. With him, Ireland is the real deal.
Keeping him fit and in this shape is more important than ever.