Gold standard form gives coach food for thought on fringes
Ireland 57 United States 14
In winning their 17th game in 18 and securing a 12-match unbeaten home run that extends back to November 2016, Ireland reinforced their position at the sharp end of the game.
A year ago a much-changed team was almost undone by Fiji. The Islanders' success in France on Saturday night showed there was no shame in that, but this win over the United States was a mark of their progress in the intervening 12 months.
Sure, the US Eagles are not as strong as the Fijians, but they did cause Ireland problems during an entertaining first-half.
Coached by the wily former Springbok assistant Gary Gold and his highly-rated Irish assistant Greg McWilliams, the visitors posed the Six Nations champions problems for half an hour before losing any grip on the game.
Despite making 14 changes to the starting XV, Joe Schmidt's side were well-drilled enough to execute a possession-based game plan that saw them take the less experienced side through phase after phase of tiring tackling.
And, while their lineout radar was again off, their third-choice front-row kept the scrummaging standards high as they squeezed the life out of their visitors.
"They work incredibly hard. Probably at the moment in world rugby, they're the team - through the analysis we've seen - who can look after the ball for the longest period of time," Gold concluded, echoing the All Blacks' coaching team's assessments of the Six Nations champions.
"At half-time, we had (already gone through) five sets of play that went on for more than two minutes and one of them was three minutes and 20 seconds- that's a lot of rugby.
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"(Ireland are) up there with as good as I've ever seen, no question about it.
"The strength in depth in Irish rugby at the moment is just ridiculously healthy. For Joe to have rested 14 starting guys from last week and pick a handful of guys who haven't even played in the combinations of this week is a massive credit, not only to Joe and his coaching staff, but also the healthy state of rugby in Ireland.
"I've said it for a while now - they're one of the sure favourites going into the World Cup."
That's not the type of talk Schmidt would entertain and he questioned one interviewer's use of the word 'contenders' in the aftermath of the game.
The Ireland coach deals in the more tangible elements of the analysis game and he'll go through the performance of his second-string to see what he can feed into the World Cup selection machine.
He didn't learn anything new about Garry Ringrose, but the centre served a reminder of his class all the same. Around him, Andrew Conway scored a hat-trick and Will Addison impressed at full-back, while Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne both did well during their stints in the No 10 slot.
There were first international tries for Stuart McCloskey and Quinn Roux and John Ryan off the bench, while Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan also scored.
There was enough pressure on the fringe players to give Schmidt pause for thought.
"It would certainly take a while," Schmidt said when asked if he had a 31-man squad in mind right now.
"In the context of the limitations around the World Cup, they give you 31 players and give you six and five-day turnarounds consecutively.
"Player welfare-wise, it's not ideal, but therefore you need to be conscious that you need robust players, players who can back up week-to-week.
"That's the brutal reality of going to a tournament like the World Cup. I think we get some of the best games you can possibly get in the Six Nations because you allow players to sprint, take a breath, sprint and take a breath again, then take the final sprint.
"It's not like that in the World Cup and one of the things we've been keen to do in Australia is just see how guys can back up week to week to week, and putting ourselves behind the eight ball was probably not the worst thing for us to experience, although at the time you're never happy to lose a Test, particularly when we had put a number of wins together.
"I think they were good in all four games enough of the time (this month) to actually deserve the four wins that we got."
Saturday's win will muddy his waters further, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
IRELAND - W Addison (S Arnold 41); A Conway, G Ringrose, S McCloskey, D Sweetnam (R Byrne 27); J Carbery, J Cooney (L McGrath 62); D Kilcoyne, N Scannell (R Herring 58), F Bealham (John Ryan 47); T Beirne, I Henderson (Q Roux 58); R Ruddock (capt), J Murphy, J Conan (J van der Flier 67).
UNITED STATES - W Hooley; B Scully (capt), B Campbell, P Lasike, M Brache; W Magie, S Davies (R de Haas 61); T Lamositele (C Wenglewski 56), J Taufete'e (D Fawsitt 44), P Mullen (D Waldren 61); G Peterson (S Manoa 68), N Civetta; J Quill (D Tameilau 68), H Germishuys, C Dolan.
Ref - B O'Keeffe (New Zealand)