Sunday 13 October 2019

Alison Miller: 'Pressure on Irish wingers to stake their claim ahead of the knockout stages'

 

Keith Earls will relish the chance to show Joe Schmidt that he should be a front-liner. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Keith Earls will relish the chance to show Joe Schmidt that he should be a front-liner. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Alison Miller

It's a common trait of good teams when the internal battle for places is just as vicious as what they bring to their rivals.

So it is with Ireland's wingers right now, an evolving jigsaw that's very much a work in progress. During my 10 years as an international winger, it never mattered how good my form was, I always felt I was under pressure with selection, so I can empathise with what players are going through.

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It's not a nice feeling, but I realise now it had a positive effect: I was always highly motivated, trying to improve in different areas and I never underestimated what it took to be first-choice.

Keith Earls would say the same, and he'll be relishing the chance to show Joe Schmidt why he should remain a front-liner.

But who should Schmidt go with for the quarter-final? He tends to opt for the tried and tested but you'd hope if someone is playing well, they'd get their chance to start.

An important part of our wingers' game is retrieving Conor Murray's contestable box kicks. Andrew Conway's try against Scotland came from a contestable that Jordan Larmour cleaned and all our wingers are good in the air, with Larmour at 15 silencing any doubters with his performance under the high ball.

The wing can seem straightforward but Earls and Jacob Stockdale will have a complex job tomorrow, particularly in defence. Wingers can be very exposed on the outside of the front-line defence, especially with the current emphasis on aggressive line speed within the game.

It can be difficult to predict whether the opposition kicker will kick into the back field or give the pass option, so a winger must be prepared to cover that space while also being ready to defend the latter.

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Issues arise when players inside miss tackles, bite in or set up too narrow, leaving wingers to decide between trying to cut the pass from getting to the overlap or going easy and hoping his players reconnect.

Confidence plays a big part in being successful in this position and if a player is in form, he should get the opportunity to start. It's a role that has evolved with the progression of professionalism and there is a lot less space on the field these days, especially in the era of rush defences and the growing trend of outside backs being continually offside.

That annoyed me as a player and it still does as a spectator. Referees need to get a handle on it before it ruins attacking rugby. In years gone by, wingers would have space to exploit their natural talent - be it pace or power - but now they need a complete game: aerial skills, ability to finish, footwork, defensive decision-making as well as being extremely physical.

Some of the best opportunities for wingers to get their hands on the ball come through counter-attacks, but Ireland don't use this as Rob Kearney prefers to carry into contact, instead of linking with his wide players - likely due to our low-risk approach to the overall game-plan.

It's hard to say who will have the starting spots when Ireland hit the knockout stages. Jacob Stockdale is a world-class finisher and while there are question marks about his defence, he was solid against the Scots with brilliant reads.

Earls is one of Schmidt's go-to men and is probably Ireland's most all-round winger: good finishing ability, evasive, impressive one-on-one tackler, strong aerially and with brilliant feet. He's a leader, but with Stockdale a first-choice winger, he's one of three guys fighting for a single position.

That kind of pressure can be the making or breaking of a player's World Cup, and in a puzzle that's yet to be worked out, how he responds tomorrow could help Schmidt find his solution.

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