Ireland fielded 11 Rugby World Cup debutants in their Pool B opener against Romania, and five of the first-timers got on the scoresheet in a comprehensive 82-8 bonus point win.
Jamison Gibson-Park, Hugo Keenan, Rob Herring and Joe McCarthy all marked their World Cup bows with tries, while Jack Crowley, who came on for the final quarter of an hour, slotted over four conversions.
Despite leaking an early score to Gabriel Rupanu, Ireland’s response in running in a dozen tries in the stifling Bordeaux heat saw them register their biggest ever World Cup victory, eclipsing 2003’s 64-7 defeat of Namibia.
Keenan had a busy afternoon at full-back, covering plenty of ground during bouts of tactical kicking, and popping up on James Ryan’s shoulder to finish off a smartly-executed 12th-minute try.
“It was a great win in the end. Bit of a mixed start and a mixed bag overall, but Romania are a tough team to play against,” said Keenan, who was Ireland’s second leading carrier (194 metres from 17 carries).
“They threw the kitchen sink at us, made it difficult for us. Obviously the conditions were very tough as well.
“Yeah, we were challenged by the coaches and Faz (Andy Farrell), and I think we had a good start and (it’s) a good stepping stone towards the rest of the tournament.”
Ranked 19th in the world, Romania certainly stunned Farrell’s men – and the vast swathes of Irish support at the sun-baked Stade de Bordeaux – with Hinckley Vaovasa’s second-minute break that put Rupanu away for the game’s opening five-pointer.
The Oaks were only 19-8 behind by the time of the first water break, but the excellent Bundee Aki bagged Ireland’s bonus point before returning captain Jonathan Sexton crossed on the stroke of half-time.
Asked about the team bouncing back from a shaky start, Keenan explained: “We didn’t panic. We stuck to our system and our plan. Just forget it, it didn’t happen and just go again, and control what you can from that moment on.
“It wasn’t panic stations. We’ve been behind before so it was just about, ‘on to the next moment and go’.”
Ireland have not scored as many points in a Test match since beating the USA 83-3 during their 2000 summer tour. Their biggest triumph in more recent times was a ten-try 71-10 success against the US at the Aviva Stadium in July 2021.
Backing themselves to finish strongly against Romania, Farrell’s side scored three of their tries during the closing 13 minutes, including a terrific long-range effort in the dying seconds, finished off impressively by Tadhg Beirne.
Keenan continued: “We were keen to chase as many points as we could out there. You never know what’s going to happen at the end (of the pool stages).
“It was tough going at the end, but fair play to Jack (Crowley) and Bundee seeing that space, and Garry (Ringrose) and Tadhg with the support play.
“It gave something for the crowd to cheer on and I think they appreciated that. It was brilliant at the end, the reception we got in that whole sea of green out there was really cool. It was a like a home game. It’s an exciting start.”
Crowley and McCarthy are the two youngest members of Ireland’s RWC 2023 squad, at 23 and 22 respectively. They both toured South Africa with Emerging Ireland almost twelve months ago, and are lapping up their first experience of a senior World Cup.
The colour and noise brought by the Ireland fans in Bordeaux certainly left a lasting impression on Crowley, who admitted: “It was unbelievable to play in front of that atmosphere.
We’ve been speaking this week about the crowd that we’re going to get following us today, and I think it’s something that we couldn’t expect.
“It was just unbelievable to be able to give them a performance, and it’s something that drives us as a group.
“Being able to give a performance to the people that turned up today and the people back home supporting us is the most important thing.”
Although the result was well sewn up by the time he came onto the pitch, the Cork youngster highlighted the onus that a replacement has to take up the baton and, particularly as a out-half, to keep the team on course.
“An an impact player, you’ve a responsibility when you come on to make a difference. Those lads that have been putting in a shift for 60 minutes, you need to bring them energy.
“That’s the main job, and hopefully having an impact. When you come on, you try and do the best you can but not being too desperate either.”
The Pool B leaders have decamped back to Tours, their team base for the pool stages, before next Saturday night’s clash with Tonga in Nantes. It will be the Pacific Islanders’ first outing of the tournament, and Crowley is expecting them to bring a lot to the table.
“Nothing changes in terms of preparation. We just take it week by week. Tonga are going to be a really good opponent, they’re going to bring a lot of challenges, physically and tactically as well.
“They’re going to be very physical, they’re going to challenge us up front. Their skills as well are something they we’re going to have to be aware of,” he added.