Saturday 17 February 2018

Schmidt's embarrassment of riches in what has been a very special time

Josh van der Flier claims a high ball ahead of Henry Speight yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Josh van der Flier claims a high ball ahead of Henry Speight yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

When dawn broke in Cape Town on the morning of June 12 it was welcomed by an Ireland squad, tired and perhaps a little emotional at the events of the previous day, occupying a whole new space. Not only was this the first-ever win on South African soil, it was the first time since Australia in 1979 that an Ireland side had gone south of the equator against one of the big three in world rugby and got off to a flyer.

Coming on the back of a mediocre Six Nations, to win with 14 men for three quarters of the game - it was 13 men for another 10 minutes when Robbie Henshaw was binned - was extraordinary. What has unfolded since then has been in the same category.

Chicago was unique. The Canada game was better than often is the case against Tier 2 opposition, and opened the gates to eight new caps. The rematch against New Zealand was unmissable - and if you were in any way squeamish, at times unwatchable - and then yesterday we got the best possible conclusion to the busiest ever November.

At the end of it all it's hard to credit how far Ireland have moved on since a Six Nations campaign that enthused nobody. Its measure is in the conversations that no longer namecheck, as standard, former heroes. We've stopped talking about the hole left by Brian O'Driscoll, and Paul O'Connell is free to get on with his new life without people telling him he'll never be replaced.

Over the course of the four Tests this month Joe Schmidt has used 39 players. Not all of them have a future as first or even second-choice, but having them as part of the club gives the coach reserves none of his predecessors enjoyed. At a time when Ireland's dominance of Europe's clubland is a thing of the past this is as welcome as it was unforeseen.

It contributed to Ireland getting over the line yesterday. As Schmidt was plugging the dyke and stretching sticking plaster over yawning gaps, Joey Carbery and Kieran Marmion stepped into unfamiliar territory and did their jobs. Carbery and Garry Ringrose have been the story of the autumn, and the coach's management of the latter illustrates perfectly how far he is ahead of the game. Centre was a two-horse race a few years ago - O'Driscoll and Gordon Darcy with no one else even in the parade ring. Now it looks healthy.

The back three by comparison is thriving. Two of those not involved yesterday - Tiernan O'Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun - could be leading the charge inside 12 months. The picture at 10 is now a three-man operation, and it's only a matter of time before Carbery is first choice to lead the attack.

Remarkably, scrumhalf is the only position behind the forwards where Schmidt wants a bolter to come through to challenge, though Luke McGrath hasn't reached his prime yet, and will be a quality Test player when he does.

It's up front where the coach is most comfortable. Tadhg Furlong's bullocking runs in the mini series against New Zealand announced himself to Warren Gatland, who has a busy summer ahead of him. Finlay Bealham's contributions when he replaces him are equally good news. With Mike Ross not quite out to pasture yet and Marty Moore fit and playing well in Wasps - today against Sale he starts his fourth of nine games this season - Ireland have never had it so good in an area where traditionally we struggle.

Iain Henderson's talent has been recognised for a while now - he was immense yesterday - and along with Devin Toner, Ultan Dillane and Donnacha Ryan, it gives Schmidt a real contest for places.

But it's the back row where you'd really not want to ring in sick. The absence of Sean O'Brien yesterday - who had been terrific since he came back from injury - naturally enough had home supporters uneasy. Along with Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw it looked like a loss that would tilt the contest towards the Wallabies.

Enter man-of-the-match Josh van der Flier. He complements CJ Stander perfectly, and both seem locked in a contest to get through more work than the other. Already you can see the subtleties coming through in Van der Flier's game, for which we should credit both player and coach. Yesterday was a special game in what has been a unique year - and a special time.

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