A big hit on Leigh Halfpenny and an aerial take of a Johnny Sexton restart after the Wales full-back had kicked the opening points for the visitors in the second minute will have offered head coach Joe Schmidt the assurance that here’s a player willing to grab his chance to fill the vacuum at outside centr.
The role of the backline defensive leader at 13 cannot be underestimated and Ireland have been blessed by a string of midfield generals, from Brian O’Driscoll through Payne and onto Henshaw. So when the latter failed to get up off the deck after scoring early in the second half of Ireland’s bonus-point win over Italy a fortnight earlier in round two and with Ringrose not match ready to take his place on his return from injury, the gaze turned towards Farrell and brows began to furrow.
After all, Farrell’s a 24-year-old with just two caps following a Test debut against Fiji and a further start against Argentina last November, and still finding his feet at Munster after three years in France with Grenoble.
Alongside an experienced midfield partner such as Henshaw, it would be less cause for concern but Schmidt was throwing Farrell into the frying pan of a heavyweight Six Nations clash against Wales with Bundee Aki, winning just his fifth cap on Saturday. Together they would form the least experienced centre partnership in Ireland’s Six Nations history and along with fellow rookies in the pack Andrew Porter and James Ryan, Ireland’s strength in depth was being subjected to a stiff examination at the highest level.
Just as the front-five forwards justified their selections at the Aviva, so too Farrell, and then some. Not just getting by but stepping ably into his predecessors’ boots as a vocal presence in defence, giving his Ireland team-mates the abillity to defend with confidence in one another.
It was a performance worthy of the man of the match award for a powerful 80-minute shift completed in perfect style as Jacob Stockdale capitalised on his defensive line speed pressure to intercept Gareth Anscombe’s pass as Wales hunted the points to overturn a 30-27 deficit with time up. Not only did Stockdale’s read end Welsh hopes, it led to a fifth and final try under the posts for the wing, a second on the day and his eighth Test try in seven international appearances.
Stockdale, yet another Ireland rookie at the age of 21, credited Farrell with putting “really good pressure” on Anscombe to force a more lofted pass from the replacement fly-half that the Irish wing could pluck out of the air.
And he marvelled at Farrell’s communiction skills throughout.
“Chris came in with big shoes to fill in terms of Robbie. Robbie’s chat in defence and in attack is really good,” Stockdale said. “Chris did as good a job if not better.” Rory Best had also referenced those assets in a player he had witnessed struggle with injury as a teenager in the Ulster academy and then find his path blocked by the likes of Luke Marshall, Darren Cave and Payne before departing in search of first-team rugby.
“The biggest thing and the thing that sometimes you don’t see, when you’re lining up as a forward outside Johnny (Sexton), you can hear (Farrell) out the back,” the Ireland captain said. “He’s always giving you options.
“ From his time in Ulster, I know how big he is, how good a carrier he is and how good his handling is” So good, in fact, that Farrell has laid down a strong claim to holding off the returning Ringrose and retaining his place in the Ireland backline when Scotland visit Dublin for the round-four showdown on March 10 as home hopes of a first Grand Slam since 2009 are tested by a team cock-a-hoop after ruining similar ambitions in England at Murrayfield on Saturday evening.
Watching Scottish centre Huw Jones make a break through the English midfield, exploiting the poor spacing between Nathan Hughes and Owen Farrell and then powering through Mike Brown and Anthony Watson in the backfield on his way to his second try just before half-time will have been a sobering sight for Ireland’s coaches as they begin to plot a way to contain Gregor Townsend’s men.
It was also a reminder that Scotland can hurt teams up the middle as well as out wide, where both they and Wales have carved Ireland open in the last two championships.
The memory of Murrayfield 12 months ago when the Scots ran riot on the fringes, scoring three tries during a nightmarish opening half-hour for the Irish in Edinburgh.
The challenges keep coming and perhaps it is Farrell that is most ready to lead the necessary rearguard action.