Monday 23 September 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Shades of 2018 as Ireland look ready to take flight in Japan'

Twickenham defeat appears to have woken Schmidt’s side from their stupor as team for Scotland takes shape

Bundee Aki offloads in the tackle during Saturday’s final World Cup warm-up against Wales. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki offloads in the tackle during Saturday’s final World Cup warm-up against Wales. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The world's number one team lingered on the Aviva Stadium pitch long after full-time on Saturday as they saluted their coach and captain to soak up the autumnal sun with members of their family and take the acclaim of the vast majority of the crowd who stayed back to make the moment linger.

Rather than a fortnight, Twickenham felt like a lifetime ago.

For the first time since 2018, Joe Schmidt's team looked a physically dominant, fully coherent unit capable of mixing it with the world's best. Maybe they've got their timing right after all.

After the game, the coach said he and his players deserved the flak they received after their dreadful performance in the record defeat to England.

It went unsaid, but equally they deserve credit for the way they bounced back from that adversity to beat Wales twice to generate some momentum going to Japan.

Their flight leaves the day after tomorrow and the tournament is very, very real now. In 13 days, they'll play Scotland in Yokohama and everything else will flow from their performance and that result.

Their display on Saturday was not without its flaws, but there was an attitude and a physicality to their work that was so often missing during this struggle of a year.

Led by the outstanding James Ryan and the now nailed-on centre partnership of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, the defensive line-speed was in the Welsh faces and the work at the breakdown was cleaner, more efficient and more effective than it has been for an age.

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After all the talk of adding extra layers to the attacking game, it was simple stuff but it was effective.

Whether it's enough to win a World Cup remains a concern.

Yet, there is so much to like about the way Ireland were suddenly dominating collisions as they defended their way through the opening quarter of the game when their lineout stuttered and their accuracy fell below the level required.

Struggling

After all of the hard work in pre-season, the players look primed for battle and, after struggling in contact in their biggest games of this calendar year, they were ramming Welsh ball-carriers back at a rate of knots.

Rory Best won a breakdown turnover and was spared a difficult day out of touch by some clever problem-solving by Ryan who held his nerve and called the ball on himself after losing two on the bounce.

The skipper signed off from the Aviva Stadium with the crowd back on his side and goes to Japan as the starting hooker.

He'll be flanked by Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong who gave his best display yet, while the front-row replacements of Seán Cronin, Andrew Porter and particularly Dave Kilcoyne look primed for big performances off the bench.

If anything happens to Best, they could easily just give the armband to Ryan who is fast-becoming the most important player in the team.

Even when caught defending in the wide-channels, the 23-year-old tyro was not found wanting.

There wasn't enough here from an ill-disciplined Jean Kleyn to suggest he'll be in the squad for Scotland, but Iain Henderson is another who has grown since Twickenham and his combination with Ryan is a dynamic one.

Behind them, Schmidt has back-row options. Although he was stripped in contact on his first carry, CJ Stander looked back to himself as he adapts to a different body-shape and captained the side home, while Josh van der Flier had a fine game and Jack Conan continued to grow into the role.

Then, Rhys Ruddock came on and made a series of dominant impacts that suggested he is set for a much bigger role than expected as Peter O'Mahony and Tadhg Beirne watched from the stands. That's going to be a tricky selection.

Half-back is more straightforward.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will dance their dance at their third successive World Cup and the scrum-half is looking to have regained his sharpness at just the right time.

Sexton had his wobbles, but unlike the spring meeting of these teams, he didn't let them get to him and played his role quietly, but very effectively on a day when Ireland played the power game well.

With Garry Ringrose enduring an ill-timed form-dip, the sight of Aki and Henshaw beasting opponents in the contact zone was a welcome one for Schmidt who will lose some creativity in the Leinster man's absence, but gain some serious go-forward on both sides of the ball.

As long as Keith Earls is fit, the back-three picks itself but that looks unclear at this remove despite Schmidt's reassurances on Saturday.

So, the chief selection calls will centre on the back-row and the bench with real pressure on those in contention to hit the ground running in training once they've acclimatised in Chiba before moving to the other side of Tokyo to Yokohama to step up preparations for Scotland.

Saturday's win puts them on top of the world rankings, but that will matter little to the coach.

What will give him comfort for the long journey ahead will be the collision-fitness of his players.

"I know people were disappointed (after England) and I absolutely agree with them," he said.

"They deserved to be disappointed, the players deserved to cop some flak because we can be disappointed.

"We lose a lineout what we can't do is then have our head down thinking, 'Oh, we lost another lineout.' as Maro Itoje runs a good line - I don't care how good his line is, we've got to make sure we get to where we need to be to win something back.

"If you lose something you've got to get it back.

"So, we were heavy-legged and I was prepared to take responsibility for that for the players, but I think the players have to accept a degree of responsibility around... that's the only time I can remember in six-and-a-half years that we haven't really fought hard for the jersey.

"We've lost games and we haven't lost that many, to be honest, because they do fight hard for the jersey.

"It will be tough at the World Cup and Scotland will be tough, but we will be tough."

That's the starting point.

Ireland will look to physically dominate the Scots and Japan, before turning all of their focus on the Springboks or the All Blacks and the game of their lives.

It all looks like it's coming together nicely.

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