The Ireland trio who have given Joe Schmidt something to think about at Rugby World Cup
LONG after the lights had gone out at the Kobe Misaki Stadium on Thursday, flashes of lightning filled the gloomy night sky.
It felt like Mother Nature was offering a metaphor for Ireland's World Cup campaign thus far.
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As a whole, they have showed glimpses of what they are capable of and it was the same against Russia as they stuttered to a rather unconvincing win.
Ultimately, the bonus point keeps their destiny in their own hands, but to gloss over the glaring flaws against the worst team in the tournament would be disingenuous.
Ireland have so far dipped below the standards they set last year that it is difficult not to be seriously concerned about what lies ahead in a potential quarter-final. That said, they do have the potential to pull another one-off performance out of the bag,
The squad will pack their bags for Fukuoka today and at this rate, they will be doing the same immediately following that last-eight clash.
Read more here:
- Neil Francis: 'Ireland should pack up and catch the next flight home'
- Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Deep down, Ireland know they're in trouble'
The players will be given the weekend off, but for Joe Schmidt, many sleepless nights lie ahead.
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Amidst the sloppy errors however, were some positives.
Johnny Sexton underlined his importance with a solid 40-minute showing. It was no coincidence Ireland lost their way after he went off. He remains absolutely central to Ireland's hopes.
Schmidt has long shown faith in his trusted lieutenants and for good reason, but he cannot ignore the form of players like Rhys Ruddock, Garry Ringrose and Andrew Conway.
You could also make the case for Luke McGrath who took his chance, but there is no way Conor Murray does not start in a quarter-final.
Ringrose has been Ireland's best player in this tournament and has managed to play all 240 minutes. Even though some players need to be managed, Ringrose is getting better with the increased game time.
If Robbie Henshaw had been fit, it seemed as though Schmidt was leaning towards a centre partnership of the Athlone native and Bundee Aki.
Yet, as he did in the Twickenham horror show, Aki lost his way against Russia and made several uncharacteristic handling errors. Ringrose must start in the quarter-final.
As for Ruddock, he has picked up where he left off with Leinster in the PRO14 final. The flanker is in excellent form, especially compared to Peter O'Mahony.
Conway has now scored in both of his appearances at this World Cup. Like Ruddock, can Schmidt ignore that kind of form?
"The back-three is competitive," Conway acknowledged.
"I feel like I'm putting a good foot forward and trying my best and I've kind of got into a good routine of things. I've learned a few lessons over the years – my preparation is now very consistent and I've added a few layers to it, so that's helped my game."
"We're here to play and to play in a World Cup. It is the biggest pinnacle in anyone's rugby career. We're not here to rest, we're here to be smart and recover and do the right things. But we're mad to play rugby."