Brendan Fanning: Conservative tactics won't earn Ireland a place in final four
Towards the end of the first half at Twickenham yesterday Simon Zebo was delighted to get a break from aerial combat duty. At last, the chance to counter attack. He ran wide towards the east stand side, inviting Jamie Heaslip in off the wing to keep the move going. The number eight obliged, and, just as he was being closed down, had two green shirts steaming into a gap to support. It involved a quick pass from Heaslip. An offload if you like. He didn't make it, and the chance went south.
These are instinctive things, and the only reasons that would explain a failure to complete would be a) lack of instinct or b) an override instruction. Heaslip was nothing special yesterday but he's a very good rugby player, so you have to infer that Ireland's safety-first policy was the dominating factor. Ireland will not get to the target zone in the World Cup - the last four - playing exclusively conservative rugby.
World Cup warm-ups are, as they sound, looseners for the main event. So you shouldn't be getting too uptight about what happens en route to the show. Still, Ireland under Joe Schmidt have a history of shunning anything that could be classified as deviation from the script. All along however he has maintained that the World Cup would be the point of contact with the unknown - or at least the unshown.
So you hope we are getting only half the picture. After four games his injury toll is as good as he could have hoped at the outset. Tommy O'Donnell's hip dislocation was the most graphic; Andrew Trimble's dodgy foot didn't help his cause; and Marty Moore never got out of the starting blocks. Then yesterday we had Conor Murray being dinged, but he seemed to make a point of jogging off - a couple of steps further up the recovery ladder than the stretchered player giving the crowd the thumbs up.
As for Johnny Sexton and Simon Zebo, cramp curtailed their afternoons. So all in all, a good return on the fitness front. And on the same topic, five weeks ahead of the critical junction - with France in the Millennium Stadium - Ireland's conditioning seems to be ok, with room for improvement. Better still, despite being under the cosh for most of the final quarter they conceded just five penalties over the 80 minutes.
But there was a sloppiness that afflicted Ireland when they were heading in the right direction yesterday - losing the ball at go-forward rucks when they needed to be more accurate; making unsympathetic passes in similar positions with the chance of something much better if they got them right.
And there were a couple of players well off form. Tommy Bowe had a thoroughly unrewarding afternoon. Dave Kearney is now an automatic pick in the first choice side, and the battle for the other wing is wide open.
Devin Toner is also feeling lots of heat from Iain Henderson. Toner needed a big game to balance the Ulsterman's phenomenal contribution of last weekend - he had been the best forward on the field - but came up well short.
So Henderson too is now in the shoo-in category for when Schmidt next puts his strongest side in the field. That will happen before France, but by the time they get to Cardiff for the second time in the pool phase, everything needs to be working. The selection is half the battle. The direction is the other half.
Sunday Indo Sport