Ireland boss Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O’Connell hailed flanker Tommy O’Donnell’s showing in Saturday’s win over Italy in Rome.
Having originally been selected as a replacement, O’Donnell was then catapulted into the Irish starting line-up just minutes before kick-off against the Azzurri.
Sean O’Brien’s hamstring twinge in the warm-up saw O’Donnell stand in for him at openside flanker and he did not disappoint, running in a superb solo try in the second half, topping the Irish tackle count with 12 and making nine carries.
It was an assured performance for someone making their first Championship start and at such short notice, but O’Connell was not surprised by O’Donnell’s impressive display.
“Tommy’s stats all year have been incredible and sometimes powerful guys find it hard to combine the power with the fitness, but he’s one of those rare kind of guys that has both of them,” said O’Connell.
“I’ve seen it at Munster for the last few months…every time I get off the ground, he seems to be either carrying the ball or tackling someone. I think a big part of his thing is how well he prepares.
“For a guy like Tommy to come in at the last minute like he did today, you’d have absolutely no worries because he prepares incredibly well for games.
“I’m disappointed for Sean – it was great to see him back after the long journey he’s been through.
“But at the same time I was delighted for Tommy and delighted to see him score the try.
“He makes those big carries with Munster a lot, and it’s great to see him do it for Ireland.”
The man himself hopes his performance gives the Irish management a selection ‘headache’ for the Round Two clash with France, while he was keen to stress that he still has a lot of improving to do after only his seventh cap.
“I would have liked to warm up with a bit more intensity as you don’t want to flay yourself then go sit on the bench, but I didn’t have the nerves,” admitted O’Donnell.
“I wasn’t building up to the game for the last 48 hours. I knew my role, I knew to just get in there and make an impact.
“But there are definitely things I need to improve on if I am to regularly play at this level – keep adding to my ball carrying, keep that physical edge at the breakdown and in the tackle.
“Joe has us so well drilled…I know what rucks I have to hit and I know I have to be in certain positions for certain plays.
“Splitting up the game, making it more miniscule and focusing on those finer details makes it easier to play the game.
“I just know I have to hit this, do it as well as I can, get up and do the next thing as well as I can and just keep rolling through the 80 minutes like that.”
O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy both made their first Championship starts in a back row that had an average age of 25 – and just 35 caps compared to the Italian back rowers’ impressive haul of 205 Test appearances.
Asked how he felt some of the younger players coped in the Stadio Olimpico cauldron, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said: “Fingers crossed that’s the first small step for them.
“They’ve had that experience, played in the pressure cooker that is the Six Nations Championship.
” As Paul said, you finish November, have two months off after with a number of changes.
“We had six of the same starting 15 as we had this time last year. That in itself presents a challenge.
“Tommy lays in a position where it’s a natural thing to top the tackle count.
“Robbie (Henshaw) put some very heavy shoulders in and stopped their momentum.
“I think he really put his hand up. Jordi Murphy’s work-rate throughout was really impressive.
“I think he volunteered to carry a lot as well as tackle a lot and I think his stats are also very impressive.
“It was almost a workaholic performance from all three of those guys, and that’s what we need.
“We wouldn’t be the biggest team around and we’ve got to make sure that everyone is working really hard, so it was great that those three could demonstrate that today.”