Monday 19 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Stale affair will do little to sway Schmidt's big squad decisions'

 

Ireland's Tommy O'Donnell. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Ireland's Tommy O'Donnell. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

It is hard to know which is the more difficult task; watching the opening World Cup warm-up game or analysing it.

For Joe Schmidt, the viewing experience will have been as frustrating as it was informative. It's hard to imagine anyone advanced their claim enough to cement their places on the plane to Japan but he at least has more information than he did before.

He said the 80 minutes had clarified matters in his mind and was effusive in his praise of certain acts by certain individuals, while recognising the fact that this was the first game of the season and the team was an unfamiliar line-up.

As a unit, they were disjointed but showed promise in the opposition '22.

In the spring, they had looked like a blunt instrument in the red-zone, but here there was variation to their play and rather than just carry hard into gang-tackles, the players looked to use their hands and find space.

Joey Carbery lurked in the shadows in an Owen Farrell-esque way, choosing his moment to come into the front-line and play.

When he did, he was effective in the extreme and looked like using this window to launch a serious assault on the No 10 jersey until his ankle went beneath him.

These games are a necessary evil and those injuries are a blight.

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On Thursday Rob Herring spoke enthusiastically about his desire to make the squad, but a back spasm intervened and he never got a chance to advance his claim.

Some players looked super-fit and primed for impact, others looked more like they were playing their first game in months.

In some ways, four games is too many because of the risk of injury but for those looking to impress it presents a narrow window.

And, when the team loses its shape and cohesion, it's hard to make a statement.

Still, Schmidt and his coaches must pick through the bones of the win and draw conclusions.

Of the two new caps, Jean Kleyn is the most likely to make Japan after an industrious performance.

Mike Haley came on and did little wrong on the wing, but he's been hovering on the cut-line for a couple of weeks now and remains behind the try-scoring starters who themselves are playing catch-up for Japan.

Kleyn, however, has always been part of Ireland's plans for this World Cup and while his handling remains an issue, his work in contact and particularly at scrum time makes him a viable option for Schmidt who values solid, set-piece delivery above most other factors.

Remarkably, it could be Tadhg Beirne who misses out although the presence of the second-row on the blindside of the scrum suggests he is a very live option for the coach.

Japan will be a place for top of the ground rugby and the Kildare native is a thoroughbred. Within seconds of coming on he won a valuable turnover, but he'll want more of a look-in against England to further his claim.

If Kleyn is in, Beirne must displace a back-row and that is unlikely given the calibre of player he's up against.

Tommy O'Donnell did well, but he's likely to be back in Munster soon with enough knowledge of the systems and set-up so that he'll be a viable option if Jordi Murphy or Josh van der Flier go down, but Schmidt also referenced CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony's ability to play at openside as he assessed his options.

Likewise, he spoke about Robbie Henshaw's capacity to slip to full-back and Garry Ringrose's scope to move to the wing in words that won't bode well for Dave Kearney, Andrew Conway or Haley. Schmidt said to expect at least 10 changes for England at Twickenham, a day when the physicality-levels will rise another couple of levels.

So too should the team's cohesion as leaders return to the fold but for some of those involved on Saturday, the chance has come and gone.

For all the coaches say they're open to persuasion by a strong performance, they're effectively looking for players to confirm decisions already made about who will make the final 31.

And hoping that injury plays as small a role as possible.

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