Saturday 25 May 2019

Ireland need captain Rory Best to step up or face being shipped out

Skipper's latest below-par performance is one of a raft of concerns facing Schmidt after a worrying team display against Argentina

Ireland captain Rory Best is tackled by Javier Ortega Desio. Photo: Getty
Ireland captain Rory Best is tackled by Javier Ortega Desio. Photo: Getty

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Back in 2013, Ireland warmed up for their first meeting with New Zealand under Joe Schmidt with one of the worst performances of his time in charge - the second-heaviest defeat of his tenure (32-15) - against Australia.

The head coach made just three changes to the team, all in the back-line, as he brought Conor Murray, Gordon D'Arcy and Dave Kearney in for Eoin Reddan, Luke Marshall and Fergus McFadden.

The pack remained intact and the coach's faith was rewarded with a performance that didn't earn a result, but set the tone for the coming years of success.

After Saturday's error-strewn performance against Argentina, Schmidt is faced with a selection dilemma.

Seán O'Brien is definitely out after breaking his arm, but the coach hopes Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be in contention and is upbeat on the prospects of Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki shaking off their ankle issues.

He was scheduled to speak to Conor Murray yesterday to find out if his first-choice scrum-half felt up to playing, although he clarified that he felt it was "highly unlikely" he'll feature.

So the coach has plenty of options as he faces into his fourth meeting with the country of his birth - all of which have been tight affairs.

He watched the first-half of New Zealand's narrow win over England live on Saturday before travelling to the Aviva Stadium and by now he'll have caught up on a second 40 minutes that saw the All Black lineout, featuring three second-rows, terrorise Jamie George's throw.

After Argentina coach Mario Ledesma's decision to put lock Guido Petti in the back-row paid dividends, as the Pumas disrupted Ireland's most important source of possession, Steve Hansen will be sorely tempted to put Scott Barrett in the No 6 shirt and have a go at Rory Best.

Critics of the captain are often accused of ageism, but regardless of the fact that he has just turned 36, the Ulsterman is enduring a tough campaign.

In Paris last month, Racing 92's famed defensive lineout did a number on the province's ball; anticipating Iain Henderson's calls and picking off Best's throw.

Argentina did the same on Saturday. They may have only won three cleanly, but they were able to disrupt and spoil a number of others.

"When we saw their team, they picked three second-rows and we knew they were going to target that," Best reflected. "They were moving around with (Javier Ortega) Desio a wee bit, when he does that with your process they guess right.

"We're obviously disappointed with that, but having said that we got ourselves back together again and won one or two scrappily. Sometimes you just have to get the ball back.

"I think we'll be the better for tonight, in terms of that cohesion in the lineout."

Like most teams, Ireland rely on clean possession out of touch to score the majority of their tries. Thankfully, their scrum did the trick against the Pumas, but they won't be able to fall back on that against the All Blacks.

Best plays an important role in that area of the pitch, but around the park his contribution has been less impactful in recent times.

On Saturday he did link the play well at times, but carried just three times for one metre. Without the ball he made four tackles and missed two, before being hauled ashore before the hour-mark.

It is perhaps cruel to single out one moment, but as 21-year-old Bautista Delguy crossed for his try, the Ireland captain - exposed on the edge - appeared to be running in quicksand as he gainfully tried to get across and Cian Healy streaked by him.

This week is a pivotal one in Best's bid to make a fourth World Cup.

Henderson seems more likely to be the fall guy for the lineout woes, with Devin Toner waiting in the wings

Certainly, Ledesma felt Ireland missed the 6ft 10in lock.

"Your main man (Toner) wasn't there, so maybe there was a little bit of confusion. I don't want to put pressure on selection for next week," the former hooker said with a shrug.

With an enforced change in the back-row and a potential tactical switch in the second-row, Schmidt won't want to destabilise the team and the skipper is likely to remain in situ.

However, after naming close to his strongest possible team for Argentina, the coach warned last Thursday that an underperformance or lack of focus would lead to players watching the All Blacks game from the stand.

On Friday, Best contemplated his own position and said that he'll know the end of his captaincy is nigh when Schmidt calls him up and tells him. It is in his power to put that phone call off for a while yet.

He has competition. Seán Cronin was quietly impressive last weekend, while Niall Scannell and Rob Herring were extremely good in Australia last summer.

Ably assisted by Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony led brilliantly on that tour and he was in excellent form again on Saturday.

However, there was another warning from Twickenham in the way things fell apart after the much-maligned hooker-captain Dylan Hartley was removed at half-time, but Schmidt is known for his ruthless nature.

The All Blacks are the kind of unforgiving outfit who will expose any weakness and they possess two of the most dynamic, skilful No 2s in the game in Codie Taylor and fit again Dane Coles.

Test rugby, they say, is no country for old men.

Until now, Best has defied that perceived wisdom, but with less than a year to go until the World Cup he needs to get back to the standards he previously set or risk being passed by.

Competition: Independent.ie has two pairs of tickets to the sold out Ireland vs New Zealand game at the Aviva this Saturday. Enter here.

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