Tuesday 17 September 2019

November recap - Rob Kearney's return to form, Jacob Stockdale's rising star and Ireland's bright future

Jack O'Toole

The curtain has come down on yet another successful November series for Ireland but what have we learned about Joe Schmidt's side from the latest round of end-of-year internationals?

That there's another wave of potentially great Irish players on the horizon? That Rory Best continues to be an evergreen force at the front of the Irish scrum? That shooting balls of fire and fireworks into the sky might be a bit of an overkill for Fiji on a Saturday evening?

Pyrotechnics aside, the grades from the annual November report card can often be qualified with an asterisk, but as a brief prelude to the forthcoming analysis, Ireland have now lost just three times in November internationals during Schmidt's tenure as head coach; twice to New Zealand and once to Australia in what equates to a rather impressive 76.9% win record.

The New Zealander's 13 wins from 20 games in the Six Nations is not as pretty as his end-of-year percentages, but it may paint a more realistic portrait of his time in charge of the national team as success in November is not always followed by further successes in the Six Nations, and vice versa.

Last November, Ireland defeated New Zealand and Australia before ultimately laying eggs against Scotland and Wales in this year's Six Nations.

By contrast, Ireland's 2013 losses to the Wallabies and All Blacks were followed by four wins from five in the 2014 Six Nations and Ireland's first championship title since the 2009 Grandslam. Go figure.

Essentially, in November, you have to simmer expectations from victories and fumigate the stench that lingers from losses, but that doesn't mean the November series solely exists as a coffer boosting exercise for the home unions, it's also a genuine chance for Schmidt and his peers to assess the pool of players at their disposal before they move towards the Six Nations where they are ultimately judged.

But before we can assess the performances from the latest series, this month's report card has to be qualified by the fact that Ireland defeated a ninth ranked Fiji, a truly awful South African side and an Argentinian team that had reached their final stop on a 186,000km world tour, but with that asterisk now inked, Schmidt still learned a lot about his side this month.

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Actions are always louder than words

Schmidt may compliment Darren Sweetnam's performance and speak glowingly about how super his Munster teammate Chris Farrell was in his two cameos in the Irish midfield, but the elephant in the press room for Schmidt was undoubtedly the questions concerning the potential and the ceiling of winger Jacob Stockdale.

Three tries, 166 metres on the ground, five linebreaks and seven defenders beaten in two starts screams a long-term future on Ireland's left wing, no matter how much Schmidt and company try to temper expectations.

Stockdale has the power, the build and the guile of an elite international winger, and while it may be too early to predict his career arc from one November series, he certainly has all the characteristics and traits of a player that looks capable of playing for a very long time on the international stage.

With Keith Earls injured, Simon Zebo cast aside and Andrew Trimble heading into the twilight stage of his career, the back three would have been a natural area of concern for Schmidt and his coaching staff heading into this month's internationals.

Stockdale had played just twice for Ireland before the opening Test against the Springboks, Andrew Conway was hardly any better in that regard with three caps, while Rob Kearney was preparing for just his fourth game of rugby in the space of six months following another difficult run of injuries.

All three answered any question marks that surrounded them heading into the series and Kearney in particular silenced a lot of the criticisms directed at him over the last 12 months.

Barring injury, there's a degree of certainty that the trio will likely reprise their roles from the Springboks win when Ireland head to Paris in February for their Six Nations opener against France, but the same cannot be said for Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose in the centres.

As impressive as Aki has been in the Irish midfield thus far, you do wonder if Schmidt will favour the continuity that Henshaw and Ringrose continue to develop at Leinster over the understanding that Henshaw and Aki built together from their days at Connacht.

Schmidt has a lot to think about regarding his selections in a crowded backline but this series has also raised a few dilemmas for the 52-year-old up front.

Cian Healy has once again gained ground on Jack McGrath for the right to start at loosehead for both club and country, while in the second-row, a similar predicament has unfolded where James Ryan's emergence has cast doubts over Devin Toner's spot in the Irish tight-five.

Competition is desperately needed across the board but there are a number of players that have bolted from the outskirts to the forefront of this side going forward; most notably; Stockdale, Ryan and Conway; while lingering concerns over Kearney and Healy have simmered for the time being.

The November internationals are not a good gauge for future performances for Joe Schmidt Irish sides, but the future of Joe Schmidt's Irish sides can often be found lying in November performances.

A number of players have gained Schmidt's trust this month, and with the Ireland U20's coming off the back of a disastrous World Rugby Under 20 Championship and the project players now a thing of the past, Schmidt can take encouragement from the options available to him heading into yet another Six Nations where he'll really discover the true strength of this promising squad.

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