Saturday 21 September 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Joe Schmidt will keep faith despite Rory Best's struggles'

Ireland captain Rory Best leaves the field at the Aviva Stadium for the final time after Ireland’s victory against Wales on Saturday. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ireland captain Rory Best leaves the field at the Aviva Stadium for the final time after Ireland’s victory against Wales on Saturday. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

As a measure of how these things can go horribly wrong when so much time has been expended on getting them right, consider the following sequence from Saturday's outing for the Irish lineout.

In the ninth minute Rory Best steps up to the mark, throws to Jean Kleyn at the front of a six-man lineout, and sees it disappear down the throat of Justin Tipuric. As the late Cliff Morgan famously gasped when Gareth Edwards scored a sensational try to open the Barbarians versus All Blacks in 1973: "What a start!"

Five minutes later, Best has the ball in his hands again as Cian Healy whispers the call in his ear. Again it's a six-man. Again they throw to the front. This time some neat footwork produces James Ryan in pole position, taking responsibility. And this time the lifters take him comfortably clear of Tipuric. Like a quarterback finding his receiver with a basic throw, Best thinks the job is done.

Problem: Referee Mathieu Raynal spots that Wales are closing the gap before the ball is thrown in, presenting an unappealing vista to Best. It's likely that this was flagged with the Frenchman before the game. 'They do this all the time - we'd appreciate if you could jump all over it.'

Why are other teams doing it? Because Best is having a hard time of it these days. Every team tries something to upset their opponents. And if those opponents are carrying a target on their back then you shoot at it.

So Raynal spots what's unfolding and goes for his whistle. Problem is Ireland have it sorted. They've already moved on. Enter Raynal to lecture the Welsh. If he had his time over he would have let it go, and sidled up to Alun Wyn Jones at the next break in play and warned him.

Fair enough, sir, the Welsh lads say, let's do this again. So now it becomes a case of Ireland having to go back and win the ball all over again. Except that a game of poker is unfolding between Ryan and Jones over where the ball will be thrown.

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Is Ryan prepared to throw it to the same place again? Or will he shift the point of attack? He opts for the latter, as Jones had hoped. Ryan had run to the front to suggest a repeat. The call was on CJ Stander in the middle. Cheers lads, says Jones, whose long left arm gets in the way and drags the ball over to Wales.

At no point in the preceding three games has the Irish lineout looked like a platform. It has lurched from ok to very far from ok, but neither is what you're after if you're a set-piece team who rely hugely on power plays to get your opponents on the back foot.

So two in a row gone south was a scary stat in the context of this game.

A few minutes later, Best steps up to throw again. This time he's complaining to the assistant referee about Wales closing the gap before he even goes through his throwing routine. Good shout. Raynal steps in and free-kicks Wales for exactly that offence. Rather than kick the ball away, Ireland opt for the scrum.

It wasn't the best scrum in the world but Ireland coped well with it - thanks to Jack Conan - and brought their carriers into play. For six phases they humped it up. It was book-ended by Bundee Aki. In between Stander showed up twice; Best, Kleyn and Josh van der Flier once each. The aggregate gave them just enough go-forward for Aki to make a clean break. That pressure led to a penalty to touch, and from there - Wales didn't contest the throw - Ireland battered away long enough to give Rob Kearney his first international try since the last World Cup.

When players talk about small margins it's often about the little things at the lineout - like the ref knowing when to intervene and when not - that set the tone. But they discovered something for the World Cup, which is that if the mood music is not right then a back-row of Stander, Conan and Van der Flier look like they have the grunt to go route one.

We'd like to see Ireland take a few other roads forward but against Scotland that's hardly likely to happen. Schmidt will see a Scotland pack that can be bullied, and if he started the same pack of forwards again it would be hard to argue.

This will seem anathema to a horde of Munster fans, who in fairness can point to the fact that two summers ago Peter O'Mahony was leading the Lions into the First Test in New Zealand. Has so much changed since then?

Coincidental

It was coincidental that Warren Gatland was the boss on that trip, for he would have appreciated Joe Schmidt's selection of Stander at six and Conan at eight on Saturday. It didn't suit Wales. It doesn't hold anything special for the quality of the Irish lineout, but James Ryan is such a good operator that you would back his skills as a lineout leader to narrow the gap. And if that lineout is going wrong then extra power around the field comes in handy.

The lineout head hunters haven't gone away. As long as Rory Best is in the cockpit there will be a queue of snipers, but don't expect the coach to change his policy on that one. Best has been virtually ever-present for Schmidt since he succeeded Declan Kidney, and he is not about to ditch him. His next big question is how to develop the attack game - especially when Ireland get to the 22 - beyond battering rams. He won't want to rest up on what was a winning farewell.

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