Tuesday 22 October 2019

Jonathan Bradley: 'Ireland's 'finishers' could be what makes this World Cup different to near-misses'

Tadhg Beirne (left) will look to make an impact off the bench against Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tadhg Beirne (left) will look to make an impact off the bench against Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

For all the talk of starting well, if Ireland are to hit the ground running at the World Cup, finishing strongly will be just as important.

For evidence, the side's previous losses both at this tournament and to Scotland can be instructive.

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Whether hampered by mass injuries or, somewhat unbelievably, a late-running bus, on both occasions Ireland were horrid in the early going with their stutters out of the traps readily cited as the root cause of defeat.

However, it is worth remembering that they lost both games not once but twice.

Against Argentina in the quarters four years ago, an early onslaught saw the Pumas race into a 20-3 lead with only a twenty minutes gone but a threadbare Ireland had hauled themselves back within three points and Ian Madigan had a kick on the hour-mark that would have levelled the scores. The jaw-dropping margin of defeat, ultimately 43-20, had as much to do with the final quarter as the first.

Fast forward to the Six Nations of 2017 and the only defeat to Scotland of Joe Schmidt's tenure.

The game that came to be known for "bus-gate", it felt like the air had been let out of Ireland's championship balloon before things had ever got going, Scotland taking advantage of sluggish visitors to lead 21-5. Again the opening quarter was mystifying, but again it didn't prove fatal.

Tries from Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson, as well as three kicks from the latter, saw Ireland lift themselves from the canvas to lead 22-21 late on.

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With eight minutes remaining Ireland were pinged for not rolling away and Laidlaw slotted the penalty. In their desperation to get the ball back at the death, another opportunity was gifted to the Scottish captain, his arms memorably held aloft in victory as the ball sailed between the posts.

So while the stats continue to show that Ireland are poor chasers, in actual fact they have dug themselves out of large holes in the past only to then fail to complete the turnaround.

"Finishers" will, hopefully, never quite catch on as an official synonym for replacements but, the idea at least, in the modern game has merit. Gone are the days of unused subs, more than half the team that finishes up on Sunday will be different to that which started. In those two notable losses it was in the substitution-laden final minutes that the game slipped away but now more than ever it feels Ireland are prepared for the shift in emphasis.

When asked what set apart this World Cup squad apart from the three previous of which he has been a part, the first word that came to skipper Rory Best's mind was depth. The final warm-up game against Wales, when an impactful bench dominated what had hitherto been a tight contest, offers a case in point.

Two weeks on fit members of the backline may be at a premium but have Ireland ever boasted a set of forward replacements this powerful?

Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan should not be seen as the second best in their position but a dynamic quintet capable of adding fresh impetus when games are there to be won or lost.

If the plan is to exert physical dominance over a Scotland team who thrive in the less structured exchanges, the lift Schmidt's replacements should bring can be key.

For his part, the head coach said as much on Friday.

"We've been really happy with some of the guys that have come off the bench for us," he said. "Whether a player starts or comes off the bench, they're every bit as important to us because you know that in the last quarter of the match, if the teams are close, that's pivotal. We need the right players coming off the bench doing the right job.

"Across the board, I think we're happy with the starting XV and the bench and we'd be happy to supplant some of those guys with the guys who aren't there but that's what you've got to be confident of when you've got a squad of 31, you've got to be confident of all 31."

The twenty-three selected first up will all be needed tomorrow.

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