Sunday 4 December 2016

Neil Francis: Ireland simply have to get their back row right against the All Blacks - the options will give Joe Schmidt a headache

Published 13/11/2016 | 16:00

A game of subdued ­ordinariness. A 52-21 scoreline looks like what New Zealand used to do to us years ago. Canada were resolute and organised, but they never had the mental skills to consistently trouble Ireland, yet they did take advantage of looseness and they were gamey in contact.

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But pluck doesn't win you internationals, and Canada will be happy with the three tries that they scored. I know somebody who won't be happy with the three tries that they scored.

Garry Ringrose during last night’s match. Photo: Ramsey Cardy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose during last night’s match. Photo: Ramsey Cardy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Yesterday there were quite a number of test matches taking place in the autumn window - the Scotland v Australia game was a contest, and the Wales v Argentina match also fitted the bill. Everything else was a blow-out; even our opponents next week just seem to be a little bit off. When is a 10-try, 68-point thrashing not impressive? New Zealand have plateaued. They may yet win next week, but the spark is gone out of their performance and yet what happened in Chicago will only make them angry. But the bottom line here is that they know that they will have to play really well against Ireland.

What can be taken out of the game yesterday? Well it was a less-than-­clinical disposal of a Tier 2 side. The Prairie Wolf Pack, the BC Bears and Atlantic Rock were supposed to fizzle out after 55 minutes, a spirited resistance. It must be remembered that the Irish team that played yesterday didn't really know each other and the looseness can be attributed to that, but not exclusively.

Ireland have to get their back-row right next week. In a match of such magnitude you would wonder whether Josh van der Flier could cope mentally for the full 80. At this stage in his career, you would think that an excursion off the bench with 25 to go would be his portion. After yesterday's evidence, it would seem that he will start. Nobody doubts Sean O'Brien's bona-fides, and quite often all the great players can produce big performances that belie the lack of match practice. He got on the ball 13 times yesterday and made reasonable yardage. But under the trade description act these could not be classified as hard yards. O'Brien was reasonably competitive over the ball yesterday, but he looked like he had fizzled out well before he was called ashore. Does the 60-minute performance mean that Joe has decided he will go with him? Because it really is the number 7 slot that is up for grabs here. Stander, you would suspect, will play the full 80 minutes next week, as will Heaslip. O'Mahony stayed the course yesterday, but whether he could be used in that role at this stage is doubtful. This is a big call, and really what you want are players capable of lasting what will be the toughest games of their lives.

You could pull a rabbit out of a hat, and introduce Leavy to the bench for next Saturday. He is playing so well at this time, that you could not consider it a risk. Jack O'Donoghue did himself no harm either yesterday. Tommy ­O'Donnell, a guy who has never let the country down, just doesn't seem to be in the equation at this moment on time. It's a big call, because next week Jerome Kaino will be playing in his regular role at 6, a position where he has undoubtedly been the best player in the world over the last eight years.

Next week's game will be a far tighter affair, and what the back rows do in and around the tackle zone will be crucial. This is where the great managers make the big calls. There was no empirical evidence to suggest that any back row player yesterday solved a selection headache for Schmidt, and so we wait until Thursday to see what happens. The fittest players, not necessarily the ones with the big reputations, just might get the nod here.

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