Sunday 15 September 2019

Tony Ward: Joe Schmidt's Fiji experiment shows bridging gap between first-choice and rest won't be easy

Andrew Conway of Ireland following the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Fiji at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Andrew Conway of Ireland following the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Fiji at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

First impressions can be powerful. In the opening five minutes at the Aviva on Saturday Ireland over-laboured the maul, they over-held the ball at the back of the scrum that followed, misplaced the clearance kick from the base, before turning over possession in the first up and at 'em from our physically powerful centres.

In modern rugby parlance, an efficient exit it was not. The early body language wasn't good and on the back of unexpected field position Fijian confidence grew.

It made for a fascinating contest in the opening quarter but for a very strange Test match after that. Not for a minute do I believe we were over-confident as this was an entirely different team to last week bar two. Also, lest anyone needs reminding, it is not the Joe Schmidt way.

Throw in some early Mexican waves - God, there are few things I hate more on any sporting occasion - and allied to the dilemma of imposing structure on lack of structure (the Fijians know no other way) alarm bells were beginning to sound. Put simply, we looked uncomfortable and despite a 14-point lead, were very short on momentum control.

The try just before the break, inspired by the brilliant Nemani Nadolo with that trademark left peg grubber, set the alarm bells ringing even louder still. Rest assured, Schmidt's half-time talk would have reflected that.

The attempt in the early minutes of the second half to impose greater physicality and by extension structure was undone through Dave Kearney's intercepted pass leading to the Fijians squaring it up and to the inevitable dogfight that followed. I feel for Kearney who gets a bum rap from fans in general despite being as honest on a rugby pitch as the day is long.

Ireland's Jack Conan in action against Campese Ma'afu, left, and Apisalome Ratuniyarawa. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Ireland's Jack Conan in action against Campese Ma'afu, left, and Apisalome Ratuniyarawa. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

The fact that Schmidt held back from making changes at the interval suggested the mid-match pow-wow concluded with the same message to the 15 who started: "It's over to you guys". In terms of upping the ante physically, Rhys Ruddock and Ultan Dillane were the most conspicuous with Jack Conan not far behind.

For whatever reason the Tralee man looked short on poundage for a Test lock. No Irish forward, not even Seán O'Brien or CJ Stander, runs into contact with greater conviction.

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In the end we just about scraped home and in a perverse sort of way will be much the better for the scare. I guess it is also a reality check for every one of us that the task of bridging the gap between the first-choice and the rest, certainly ahead of Japan, has a bit to go yet.

And again, to borrow from the modern vernacular, not too many on Saturday 'put up their hands'.

To the three forwards already mentioned add Cian Healy as a certainty to face the Pumas on the loosehead side of the scrum.

His impact against the Fijians was immediate with his nimble footwork a revelation. I would go so far as to say that at the ripe old age of 30 he is playing the best rugby of his career since first bursting onto the scene as the young Belvederian off the Phil Conway conveyor belt who could wear numbers 1,2 or 3 with consummate ease.

Beyond that, Andrew Conway was the pick of the backs and a worthy man of the match. I only hope that the new Munster coaching regime insists on playing him at 15 with Simon Zebo on the left and Darren Sweetnam on the right. I would like to think, irrespective of the new head coach, that in Felix Jones that critical decision is in good hands.

Sweetnam has been the epitome of composure at this level over the last two weeks and while a little bit of Joey Carbery magic presented the first try on a plate, Sweetnam, much like Jacob Stockdale, is looking to the manner born at this level - and much like Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, Sweetnam and Stockdale are Schmidt's type of wingers.

As for Carbery, what can you say? He is my type of rugby player. I love his spontaneity, that inventive streak that makes it nigh on impossible for the opposition to read what he is doing next. Signs are he will not be available for next week but were Johnny Sexton unavailable for whatever reason, Carbery would probably not be my choice to wear ten. Ian Keatley is (not unlike Kearney the younger) undervalued and as of now, in the absence of Paddy Jackson, a more efficient game manager than Carbery.

I suspect Schmidt is in a quandary as to how to get his most talented all-round natural footballer outside of Conway into the side. Whether his best position going forward is out-half or full-back remains to be seen.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA

But what Carbery does need is greater game-time in the pivotal playmaking role for his province. Enter Leo Cullen.

Here I would hope that Girvan Dempsey, much like Jones down south, will with responsibility for the backs do what is best for the player as well as the team. It is a difficult balancing act but what is already crystal clear is that Carbery possesses innate attacking ability that simply cannot be coached.

We have been very fortunate, specifically since the game went open, to have gifted individuals like Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Conway, Carbery and Jordan Larmour come through the system. Watch for the name Chris Cosgrave too, currently SCT full-back although a fourth year student and the latest off the extraordinary St Michael's conveyor belt.

All that said, a different challenge now comes our way in five days' time. Schmidt did not underestimate Fiji in the slightest. He knew what to expect but no coach can legislate for what transpired either side of half-time.

That said, due in the main to the replacements, specifically Healy and Keatley, we got out of jail.

Expect these two and possibly Dillane, Ruddock, Conan and Healy to be in the mix to face the Pumas in a contest guaranteed to take us back to the Springbok demands of a fortnight ago. That in itself is no bad thing. And hopefully no brain-dead Mexican wave this time.

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