Chance for fringe men to send Schmidt a message
ALMOST a year on from a haunting night in Hamilton Ireland's season to forget comes to a more sedate close against Canada in Toronto early tomorrow morning (1.0am).
The fallout of that record defeat hung around into November and a disappointing day against the Springboks, followed by hope against Argentina and again in Cardiff before the decimation of spring and the departure of Declan Kidney as head coach.
Joe Schmidt has been measuring the size of what lies ahead over the past eight days, having arrived in time to see his new team just get over the line against the US Eagles in Houston.
He has spent the full week in camp, but maintained a watching brief as Les Kiss continued his hands-on role.
On Monday, Schmidt spoke publicly for the first time since taking over the reins and urged patience.
However, after the wonders he worked at Leinster, expectation is high and patience is a luxury not afforded at this level where every Test is a must-win and the stakes are always raised.
The fixture makers have done him no favours with Samoa, Australia and New Zealand coming to Dublin in November, so experimentation is limited, meaning that this tour has become more important.
Winning both of the Tests on tour was the minimum requirement, but what the New Zealander needs most is players to show an ability to perform when the big guns come to town.
He will have watched with interest as Peter O'Mahony rose to the challenge of captaincy and the Corkman returns home on Monday with his stock raised.
He will also have been informed by the last 10 minutes against the US Eagles, where the likes of O'Mahony, Devin Toner, Felix Jones and Stuart Olding made big plays to win the game.
Their names have come up constantly in conversations with players and staff about players stepping up. Shorn of most of the usual corps, Kiss needed leaders and a number have emerged.
Sure, there was plenty to be critical about after a three-point win over a tier-two nation, but Schmidt was far more informed by those minutes when the game was in the balance than he would have been by a 40-0 win.
Canada will be a step up from the US, but Kiss has held something in reserve for this game and Andrew Trimble, Kevin McLaughlin and James Downey have the experience that seemed to be lacking last weekend. All three have points to prove, too, and that is no bad thing against lesser opponents.
Another facet of the tour is the emergence of Ian Madigan, somewhat belatedly, on to the international stage. Kiss intimated on day one that he would rotate his out-halves, but Madigan has held on to the No 10 jersey this week and appears every inch a Test player.
For Paddy Jackson, it has been a humbling experience. Kiss may say that he got his go in the Six Nations, but the Ulsterman was the man in possession when he left Dublin. He departs Toronto at No 3 in the pecking order.
Madigan's confidence is in everything he does. The 24-year-old even fielded a pressure high-ball in the heat of battle last weekend, backing himself against bigger men. Schmidt will have taken note.
The former Blackrock College student will need to have his shooting boots about him at the BMO Field as, for all of their limitations, Canada have a class goal-kicker in James Pritchard.
Most of the home injuries that dogged their preparation have cleared up – even two of the three concussions suffered in a bruising encounter with Tonga last weekend.
That win was their third in a row this summer and they are battle-hardened. But of the team selected by Kieran Crowley, just six are based in Europe and four play in the second tier in England or France.
While the overall standard of their team is probably higher, they lack the destroyers of the US back-row, Todd Clever and Samu Manoa, or the threat of a Taku Ngwenya.
The breakdown will be key and it was notable that two of the seven changes to Ireland's team came in the back-row. Tommy O'Donnell makes his first start after a fine season and can make an imprint on Schmidt's mind with his play in the rucks.
Canada will have watched the mayhem the States inflicted last weekend and taken note. Ireland need to be ready.
Discipline will also be key after Canada's last game descended into a series of brawls, albeit mostly instigated by the Tongans. O'Mahony said this week that "no man will be left behind" in battle, but after a couple of cheap American shots last weekend and the fact that this is the last day of a long season, they need to keep their heads.
The line-out will need to improve and Richardt Strauss and Toner have a second chance to make it work after it deprived Ireland of good ball in the first half last week, while more of the same is required by Mike Ross in the scrum after he destroyed his opposite number in Houston.
Toronto has been far more like home for the Irish players this week. Conditions have been mixed, but after the overwhelming heat of Texas, it has been welcome respite.
Eleven of the squad may have come down with stomach bugs, but the experience of staying downtown in the multi-cultural Canadian city will have broken the monotony after a long lead-up in camp and a week couped up in Houston.
Now, they must summon their focus for one last 80 minutes before they can board planes to Las Vegas or wherever they'll spend their summer holidays.
Their new coach will leave with plenty to muse over as he watches his stellar names in action in Australia.
The question has arisen several times on this tour: how many of these players will still be in the squad in November?
It is up to those taking the field tonight to ensure that they are.
Verdict: Ireland by 15 points
CANADA – C Braid; J Pritchard, C Hearn, H Jones, T Paris; N Hirayama, P Mack; H Buydens, R Barkwill, J Marshall; J Sinclair, T Hotston, T Ardron, J Moonlight, A Carpenter (capt). Reps: R Hamilton, A Tiedemann, D Wooldridge, J Phelan, N Dala, S White, L Underwood, P Parfrey.
IRELAND – F Jones (Munster); F McFadden (Leinster), D Cave (Ulster), J Downey (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster); I Madigan (Leinster), I Boss (Leinster); T Court (Ulster), R Strauss (Leinster), M Ross (Leinster); D Tuohy (Ulster), D Toner (Leinster); K McLaughlin (Leinster), T O'Donnell (Munster), P O'Mahony (capt, Munster). Reps: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), D Fitzpatrick (Ulster), M McCarthy (Connacht), C Henry (Ulster), P Marshall (Ulster), P Jackson (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht).
Ref – L Hodges (Wales).
Canada v Ireland,
Live, TG4, 1.0