Wednesday 18 September 2019

Schmidt pleased to see room for improvement

Ireland's Simon Zebo goes over for his side's third try during the victory over Scotland in yesterday's Rugby World Cup warm-up match at the Aviva Stadium Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Ireland's Simon Zebo goes over for his side's third try during the victory over Scotland in yesterday's Rugby World Cup warm-up match at the Aviva Stadium Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Two down and two to go, and perversely the ropey nature of the Ireland performance at the half-full Aviva Stadium played perfectly into the hands of Joe Schmidt.

Had the try count in a 28-22 win over Scotland been, say, six instead of four, and had the win/loss issue been sorted early in the final quarter, then the coach would have been reaching for the wet blanket to calm the expectations of the natives.

Instead, he can point to any number of joints in the system that need oiling. The scrum isn't one of them - and it's a pity, given Ireland's efficiency currently in this area that the average per game is not higher than 10/12. The lineout was not too shabby, either.

It was the bits in between where the gaps appeared, and regularly in the game Scotland looked like the ones who were playing their second game instead of their first.

At this point it's about getting names on plane tickets - split between 17 forwards and 14 backs - a process governed by injury and form. And Schmidt is happy enough with where they are on that journey, halfway through the warm-up series.

"We have 29 different players who started, and two new caps, and to do that and get a couple of wins is great for confidence within the group," he said. At which point he went into the list of things to be improved.

The questions he wanted answered in this game included the viability of Simon Zebo at full-back. "Whenever he had to go for a ball in the air he gave confidence to his team-mates," Schmidt said.

There are defensive issues about Zebo's game but his ability to win man-on-man challenges consistently is a valuable asset.

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He took his try well and it capped off a performance that should seal his inclusion in the squad, which would have been far from automatic given his career path since Schmidt took over the reins.

Elsewhere, it was valuable to give a debut to Jack Conan, in case he ends up being called up because of injury, and also to see Nathan White at last get the run Schmidt had planned for him over a year ago, only for injury to intervene.

It was useful too, to give Seán O'Brien a run as captain, and at number eight, and to see how Ian Madigan went at 10. Dogs on the street like to yap about the Leinster man's struggles with orthodoxy, and occasionally there is some merit in that barking. It was evident again yesterday. So too were the inconsistencies with his kicking.

Out of hand he was good, especially in his penalties to touch, and the cross-kick for Luke Fitzgerald's try was a wonderful piece of skill. At the other end of the spectrum was his missed kick with five minutes left when success would have meant the game was over.

By a distance the top of the 'work-on' list was defence - where Ireland fell off, or out of, an extraordinary number of tackles. And there were times too when Scotland's structure - when they had the ball - looked better.

"I thought our attack shape looked good and we caused them a few problems," their captain, Henry Pyrgos, said.

"As a nine I'm really enjoying the system we're playing with and we had good width and got in behind them a few times, which was good."

If Ireland had ticked that box then we would have got the performance the fans expected, and the level of expectation the coach dreaded. Chances are he would he happy enough for lots of things to go right in a fortnight, however, when Warren Gatland brings his boys over in what, for both sides, will be the penultimate warm-up match.

"I would suspect that Wales will come fully loaded, and fully refreshed," Schmidt said.

"I think we'll see a very different Welsh outfit and it'll be a great challenge for us."

If Ireland can come through that unscathed it will be a day well spent.

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