Pieces starting to fall into place for Schmidt as fringe players put their hands up
JOE SCHMIDT loomed large over proceedings at Kingsholm on Saturday, with the television cameras cutting to the Ireland coach at every opportunity as he took stock of the contenders vying for the last remaining places in his Six Nations squad.
There was much for the New Zealander to admire about the doughty display but perhaps the most significant event of the day in the context of Ireland's championship was taking place across the Channel in Paris, where Jonathan Sexton brimmed with life in Racing Metro's win over Toulouse. If the Irish coaching ticket had managed to find a television showing events at the Stade de France, they would have been excited by the possibilities the fly-half was showing.
He scored an opportunistic try, set one up and played a part in another in a 74-minute contribution to a 25-5 win.
The former Leinster man, whose body language had veered between dejection and frustration for much of the winter, cut a purposeful figure here and should report for duty fit and well despite shipping a heavy knock in a late Joe Tekori tackle early in the second half.
Sexton's form will be crucial to Ireland's efforts in the coming eight weeks and his fitness is of paramount importance.
Schmidt said last week that he felt his primary pivot reported for duty in much fresher shape than he had in November when he turned up having been flogged due to Racing's lack of options at No 10.
So the coach was already in credit before he took his place over the shoulder of Wolfhounds coaches Anthony Foley and Neil Doak in Gloucester.
What followed would have warmed him further. Sure, the England Saxons were disjointed, and he probably would have liked his side to have had more of the ball, but many of the Wolfhounds did much to push their individual cases in a strong display – particularly in defence.
With a large focus on the openings at openside and on the wing, there was plenty to inform Schmidt's view, while the strength of the work at the breakdown was impressive.
The coach raised eyebrows when selecting Fergus McFadden for his initial squad despite having had no games, while leaving Craig Gilroy and Simon Zebo – who had both returned from their injuries – out to continue their recovery.
The call appeared justified to some degree on Saturday as the Leinster man – one of Ireland's best players in November – fizzed with energy and threat, while defending well.
McFadden showed enough to suggest that he can come straight into the squad and even the team if required.
Gilroy, in contrast, looked rusty and struggled to have an impact; the Ulster wing has yet to recapture the form that earned him a starting berth in last year's championship.
Zebo, meanwhile, looked sharp off the bench and, following his outstanding cameo against Edinburgh, would be hard to leave out of the reduced squad of 32.
In the back-row, Tommy O'Donnell was another to impress with a physical display of tackling and ruck-work, alongside the increasingly impressive Rhys Ruddock and the powerful Robin Copeland.
Whether the Munster flanker did enough to displace Chris Henry from the team to start against Scotland remains to be seen; however, in terms of replacing Sean O'Brien, he is as close as Ireland come to a like-for-like option. Jordi Murphy made an impact in the last 20 minutes as Ireland held out, while Iain Henderson's brilliant tackle technique and combative display from the second-row should earn him further involvement, especially given his capacity to cover two positions.
Indeed, the quality of the Irish pack's work at the breakdown was a real standout and, if the senior team can dominate opponents in the tackle area like the Wolfhounds did on Saturday night, then Sexton and the men outside him will get plenty of chances to attack.
The six front-rows used all contributed to a strong forward effort, particularly in the second half, but it was perhaps Ian Madigan and Isaac Boss who shone the brightest on the back of the go-forward ball they received.
The Leinster pair have been out of favour for the big Heineken Cup games in recent weeks, but rather than sulk they led their team forward and each scored a try.
Madigan ran his backline well, kicked brilliantly and showed presence of mind with his quick-tap penalty for the try, while Boss gave a clever display of his range of skills.
While it wasn't much of a night for ball in hand, Robbie Henshaw gave an abrasive display in defence on a tough night to impress in the wide channels.
With Saxons fly-half Freddie Burns in generous form, Ireland rode their luck to an extent against a far less experienced team, but still there was much to admire.
How many of these players will be involved at Lansdowne Road this Sunday remains to be seen, but there was enough to show that Schmidt's long-term plan of building depth in all positions is on schedule.
A good night's work, now on to the real business.