Monday 26 August 2019

Injury to key man messes leaves coach rewriting best-laid plans

Ireland left with more questions than answers after first warm-up, writes Brendan Fanning

Ireland's Joey Carbery receives medical attention. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Joey Carbery receives medical attention. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Joe Schmidt was hardly going to present the injury to Joey Carbery yesterday as a disaster, but on his pre-match wish-list it's fair to say the health and well-being of his 10 was very high. So he has a problem on his hands, regardless of what the scan throws up when the swelling on Carbery's ankle subsides sufficiently to get a decent picture.

The best case scenario is that there is a minor tear that can be rehabbed in a few weeks. But even with that, it messes with the plan for divvying up game time to those who need it. And after a hamstrung season in the second half of 2018/19, Carbery needs the minutes.

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If Ireland were on a similar trajectory to 2015 then it would be less of an issue. Back then the opening games threw up Canada and Romania. Then Italy. Effectively Ireland had a second warm-up series, stitched into the pool programme, to follow their four games before the World Cup started. This time round it's Scotland first up. And they are followed by the host nation just six days later - a Japan side who will have enjoyed an eight-day turnaround.

So already the plan is being rewritten, and prayers are being offered up that when Johnny Sexton starts against England in a fortnight he comes through unscathed.

Elsewhere, a few of those players under pressure scored a few personal points. Dave Kearney did well after a slow start, though it would take a cloth of whirlwind performances to keep him in the squad when the axe falls. The same goes for Tommy O'Donnell, who mercifully did well and without incident.

Andrew Conway's man-of-the-match display was perfectly timed. Effectively he is competing with Chris Farrell. With Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki nailed on to go to the World Cup, the coach has to decide how to fill in a centre/wing slot. If he runs with six players covering nine and 10 then it becomes a pinch point, and one of this pair will lose out.

Already it's hard to see Jean Kleyn reversing. From the moment he arrived in Munster he has been under Schmidt's microscope. Front-five forwards of his size and aggression have a huge appeal to the coach who considers his team small by international standards. The knock-on from this puts yesterday's captain, Rhys Ruddock, on a collision course with Tadhg Beirne.

On the Ireland tour of USA and Japan in 2017, every time Ruddock - captain on that spin - took to the top table you could imagine him being part of the World Cup squad some 21 months later. Beirne hadn't been capped by then.

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If Schmidt runs with Devin Toner, James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Kleyn as his second rows then Beirne's inclusion means it will be in the tight-as-a-drum zone that is the back row. Ruddock carried more than any other forward on the field yesterday and made another argument in his case. Beirne, however, is an outstanding all-rounder, and will be counting the days to his opportunity to get some more time in harness.

That pressure is what made Rob Herring's premature departure yesterday so frustrating. He's locked in a battle with Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin, from whom two will be picked to support captain Rory Best.

Schmidt has backed himself into a corner on this one, for his team leader is no longer the best man in the position.

Herring threw some light on this in Australia last summer, so having the door closed on him so soon yesterday was a personal disaster.

These warm-up series are far more interesting for the sub-plots than what's on the scoreboard. And this one has a bit to run.

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