Monday 17 December 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Japan window closing for fringe men who must block out the distractions and play as a team in order to finish 2018 on a high'

Will Addison gets a shot at showing his versatility in the full-back slot. Photo: Sportsfile
Will Addison gets a shot at showing his versatility in the full-back slot. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The lord mayor's show has been and gone and yet here we are again with another Aviva Stadium sell-out.

The venue is the same, but everything else will be very different around Lansdowne Road this evening as a much-changed team take the field to play the 13th best team in the world knowing that this could be their last chance to impress in green before the season is out.

They do so against a backdrop of a build-up that has understandably hovered between euphoric reflections on last week's historic win over New Zealand and deep concern about the impending decision by the head coach on his future.

Yesterday, stand-in captain Rhys Ruddock cut a bemused figure at the top table as he fielded a series of questions about Joe Schmidt.

There has, he says, been no talk of the coach's intentions behind the scenes at Carton House but all they have to do is take a quick look at the back pages or turn on the radio to hear frenzied discussion about whether or not the Kiwi will return home in 2019.

Ruddock, in fairness, always seems to take an even-keel approach to his business but he is also keen to learn from last year's 23-20 win over Fiji when a similarly altered team struggled to a two-point win.

"Looking back at some of the other games with a similar scenario, even that Fiji game stands out to be because I was playing in it; We maybe tried to play as individuals a little bit, not stick to what makes us strong and the collective," he said.

"I think everyone fully understands that. We have spoken about it but I think everyone's well aware of it and the coaching staff are well aware of that.

"It's like another Test match, the way we get the result we want is by all being on the same page and making sure we operate well as a team.

"We have fallen into that trap before and there is that element to a game like this where guys are getting an opportunity that they haven't had in the last few weeks.

Collective "From the experience of the last few weeks and the messages that are coming down from the coaching staff, some of the leaders within the group as well - the best way to stand out is almost not to stand out. It is to make sure that the whole team as a collective performs well.

"Because that's ultimately how you're going to win Test matches. That's our job tomorrow, to perform well as a team."

It is the kind of challenge that is easier to talk about than to carry out.

The bookies have imposed a 37-point head start on Ireland, despite the USA's nine wins from their last 10 games.

Scotland are the biggest scalp the Eagles have taken in an excellent 2018 campaign under experienced South African coach Gary Gold.

They are missing some key players like AJ MacGinty, but having defeated Samoa and Romania this month, they'll want a creditable performance against an Ireland side that put 55 points on them in New Jersey last year.

Now, like then, the Irish were captained by Ruddock and without some leading lights.

Working through his entire squad, Schmidt has gone for 14 fresh faces, plus Garry Ringrose who starts for the third week in four - a decision that's unlikely to be well received in Leinster where they have a bit of a midfield injury crisis right now.

His presence in the No 13 shirt is designed to help Joey Carbery settle back in to the out-half slot, while it also helps Stuart McCloskey in the No 12 channel.

The Ulster centre is a fine talent, but he has been used sparingly by Schmidt. A powerful carrier who possesses a rare offloading threat, he won his debut at Twickenham in 2016 and followed it up with a solitary cap in that Fiji game last year. The frequency of his appearances continues in 2018.

In another era, the big Bangor man would be a regular in the team but the head coach has built a formidable depth chart. Sammy Arnold is on the bench, Rory Scannell is not involved and Chris Farrell is just back from injury.

Such riches keep players on their toes and McCloskey is a prime example of a player who knows that today might be his last chance to impress the coach and get into the World Cup picture.

The window of opportunity is closing rapidly.

Having started at outside centre at short notice against Argentina, Will Addison gets a shot at showing his versatility in the full-back slot. Andrew Conway and Darren Sweetnam get a chance to impress on the wings, while John Cooney needs a big game after Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath went well in the big two.

Up front, there's opportunity for Dave Kilcoyne and Finlay Bealham to remind Schmidt of their talent, while Niall Scannell is still a player who can push himself firmly into the Six Nations plans.

Tadhg Beirne is a player who must be frustrated with his lack of involvement in the last two weeks and Schmidt will want a response, while the back-row of Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan will all feel they can force their way in on the big days.

The Eagles will hope to exploit a lack of cohesion in a team that has largely provided opposition to the starters in recent weeks and cause doubt among players adjusting to new combinations.

In centre Paul Lasike, they have an athlete of rare quality and if they can get him on the front foot he can do serious damage.

Their Irish-born players, Paul Mullen, John Quill and Dylan Fawsitt, will certainly be up for a run-out at Lansdowne Road and Gold will have his own World Cup markers he wants to hit.

There is nothing to suggest Ireland's record run of home wins will stop at 11, but it is likely to be a closer game than many imagine as the world's No 2 team look to close out an unforgettable 2018 with one last performance.

Verdict: Ireland 41 United States 18

Irish Independent

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