Monday 26 August 2019

Tony Ward: November surprise package will be hard to shift even when star names return for Paris clash

25 November 2017; Chris Farrell of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
25 November 2017; Chris Farrell of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and Argentina at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It shows how far we have come under Joe Schmidt that at the end of a November clean sweep we are picking at whatever bones of negativity we can find.

Maybe that's a good thing as we continue to hit unprecedented standards of consistency.

'that a forensic examination of this win will be carried out by Joe Schmidt and his lieutenants' Photo: Sportsfile
'that a forensic examination of this win will be carried out by Joe Schmidt and his lieutenants' Photo: Sportsfile

Saturday wasn't blemish-free - anything but - yet in the final analysis the positives far outweigh the negatives.

The opening couple of minutes were as close to perfection as an exit strategy can get.

The composure, the discipline, the variation and the self-belief when moving the ball through multiple pairs of hands from 22 to 22, culminating in a Johnny Sexton penalty in front of the sticks, made for the most clinical opening salvo from any Irish side I've seen.

Given the opposition, it laid down a clear marker.

It showed that Rory Best, Peter O'Mahony and the rest were up for the fight. Best had stated in midweek the need not just to replicate the level of training from Carton House but up it substantially. In the opening 25 minutes they did, and how.

On either side of the ball in that period they were in control of momentum, and their 13-point lead was a fair reflection of their superiority. Indeed, they might have been further in front only for poor execution of a cross-field kick by Conor Murray to Adam Byrne. Right idea, wrong club.

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There were fleeting moments of individual and unit brilliance but credit to Agustin Creevy and another very proud bunch of Puma players who despite early signs of fatigue, particularly in the mobility of the tight five around the field, worked their way back into a game which in truth the home team always controlled.

In that scenario it would have been all too easy to throw in the towel and let Ireland cut loose, as was the case in the final quarter against South Africa.

There are better rugby playing nations but few if any play with greater commitment to the cause than Argentina. Pride comes with wearing the national emblem but the Pumas consistently push the boundaries beyond that again.

When man of the match Jacob Stockdale's second try, converted by Sexton, made it 20-0, I expected Ireland to run away with it.

Instead, a try at the death made for a nine-point margin, but given that it came from a break from under their own posts when an Irish seven-pointer seemed inevitable it might well have been 35-12 to Ireland.

I'm glad it wasn't - in a sense justice was done by way of a more friendly scoreboard to the visitors.

On the basis of second-quarter and second-half possession it was no more than they deserved.

It is within that context that a forensic examination of this win will be carried out by Joe Schmidt and his lieutenants. Nothing surer.

That said, there was still so much to admire about this performance.

Full-back Rob Kearney was immense. The Leinster man is not your prototype modern full-back entering the line at third centre and setting the wing racing free.

However, he is the consummate moral leader who accepts responsibility in everything he does.

It is highly significant that Schmidt risked an entire three-quarter line with just a handful of caps between them, but bolstered by Kearney at the back and by Murray and Sexton in front.

I am delighted to see Kearney back on song, showing that good things come to those who persevere.

Byrne on the right got little to do in attack but was solid in all he did defensively, including a stint in the centre.

Stockdale on the other flank represented the biggest single plus alongside Andrew Conway, Cian Healy, and Chris Farrell from this series. And then there's James Ryan and Rhys Ruddock.

Stockdale is a coming superstar. Because he is so physically imposing it is easy to overlook that he is still so young. He has size, pace and the confidence to back himself in any one-to-one.

Not since Denis Hickie have we had a natural left wing of that calibre. It is his instinctive lines of support in search of the whitewash that marks him as special to me.

But the surprise package over the last fortnight has been Farrell, and here Schmidt must take a bow.

What we witnessed in the Aviva in terms of soft hands, appreciation of space and accuracy in passing off either side was light years removed from anything we have seen from him with Munster. Only Stockdale eclipsed him in the race for outstanding man in green.

Up front, the entire front-row stood up with Tadhg Furlong now as vital to the cause as either of the first-choice half-backs.

Despite all the talent coming through he is virtually irreplaceable.

As for Best, he just seems to keep getting better, and his decision making in the heat of battle was superb.

Ryan is the man for tomorrow - and that tomorrow is fast approaching. Alongside him, Iain Henderson's athleticism in lineout fetching was sublime. He could be a leader in the Paul O'Connell mould and needs to start asserting himself as such.

We are coming down with back-row forwards, but in the search for balance the three Lions from last summer hold their own.

The big question ahead of Paris next up will be balance in midfield. Bundee Aki did many good things defensively but disappointed in distribution against the Pumas.

That said two from Robbie Henshaw, Farrell, Aki, Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose is a pretty good dilemma.

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