Saturday 19 October 2019

Neil Francis: 'Green shoots of recovery show Joe Schmidt learns from setbacks'

Ireland's Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring their second try with team mates
Ireland's Jacob Stockdale celebrates scoring their second try with team mates
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Want to know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking what are Gregor Townsend and Jamie Joseph thinking? After the understatement in Twickenham last week, the coaches of Scotland and Japan would have been happy enough to let their pulse quicken as Ireland's vulnerability was continuing.

That may have changed somewhat today. We know what today was, Ireland had a guaranteed five World Cup starters and Wales a dismissive two when the match kicked off.

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There may have been moments of excitement in the game but for all intents and purposes these were two PRO14 selections playing PRO14 football. There was none of the unrestrained violence that we saw last week in Twickenham. In a confrontational sport your starting block is to confront your opponent. In this regard Ireland, without totally physically subduing Wales, managed to do that — something they were demonstrably unable to do in London.

And so our pool rivals will sleep a little less soundly in their beds tonight. Ireland can deal with sides who don't have the same sort of power as England, South Africa and New Zealand have. If you try and play football against Ireland, without punching holes in the defensive line and turning the screw on them, then they will beat you.

We always knew that Wales would not be able to pressurise Ireland's throw-in the way England did and surprisingly their scrum was a good distance off international standard. We might remind ourselves what Wales did to our scrum last March in Cardiff. This collection of four Blues, five Ospreys, five Scarlets and one second-string Saracen really should have been put to the sword and the fact that they still had three minutes left to win a game that they scarcely deserved to be anywhere close to, maybe tells you that Jason Cowman, Ireland's strength and conditioning coach, might have his team ready to peak seven weeks from now as opposed to right now.

Deep in the back of my mind, when reviewing how sharp and fit England looked last Saturday, there is the feeling that Eddie Jones may be unable to keep his side in such condition and fine fettle when the knock-out stages begin in late October. Ireland just about defended their line when they needed to but you got the notion once again that fatigue clogged the antennae of their senses and they struggled to contain Wales in the last 15 minutes.

From the off it was clear that Ireland had pulled themselves up into a tight ball of resistance and bounced their way into this game, although they ceded possession and territory but dominated the physical exchanges. Wales had no Billy Vunipolas or Manu Tuilagis to strike terror into their heart.

Wales tried to play football but, with a far better attitude and a clearer defensive understanding, Ireland prospered without the ball. Scotland and Japan know what is coming because they don't have any Vunipolas either. What, though, do Ireland do when they meet a power side again? Today was interesting. It was only a warm-up game but Ireland had 10 offloads in the 80 — more than their entire number during the Six Nations earlier in the year.

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This is most un-Joe-like. Did the players disobey him or does he now realise that to undo power sides you either have to kick really well — which Ireland have not been doing of late — or you have to offload and pass really slickly? It will be a dry ball in Japan.

One thing you can say about Joe is that he can learn from setbacks. The ethos here would be that you don't handicap your players' route to the World Cup by making their lives easy. Despite the quality of the opposition, what you must give credit for here is the ability to recover from last week's disaster. Ireland were spikey and flinty, there was an emotional response and their attitude was spot on for the most part.

Ireland's pack gave a half decent performance and Dave Kilcoyne was very good. Our first-choice second-row pairing had their moments and will need to play again next week to become that world-class pairing that still seems to be in embryonic form. At this stage, Jack Conan also needs to start next week, he is a far more effective and a far more dynamic proposition than CJ Stander. Tadhg Furlong too, after an indifferent season, needs to rediscover himself. Ireland have a chance against anyone if their pack plays anywhere close to its best. As Marcus Aurelius said: "The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing."

A powerful performance from our pack next Saturday at the Aviva will see the Welsh beaten for the second time in a week and leave Townsend and Joseph in a stark mode of self-realisation.

Ireland have been mediocre at best this year but have the capacity to recover themselves and win their group by putting the Scottish and Japanese packs to the sword.

Outside of that, the Connacht half-backs had a pretty decent outing but no questions were answered because I suspect the quality of that Test match was precisely at their level. Jack Carty, though, is a canny footballer. He has a cool head, his skills don't break down under pressure and he may be a decent option. The question now is who plays next week at 10 and who covers him? That also goes a long way towards determining how far Ireland go in this competition.

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