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Tony Ward: Ross Byrne or Ian Keatley deserve to be ahead of Joey Carbery in crucial role as Sexton’s understudy

Talking Point

Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery and Ian Keatley
Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery and Ian Keatley
Ross Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Nine match points secure and a 39-point scoring differential at the top of the table after the first block of games makes for a pretty impressive start. I believe Joe Schmidt when he says he would have gratefully accepted that position had he been offered it a fortnight ago.

Saturday, though, was a mixed bag or, as the late, great Maurice Ignatius Keane used say regularly after big matches when impersonating fellow Kingdom man Micheál ó Muircheartaigh, 'the first half was even, the second half was even worse'.

To be fair, that is only half-true as the first half on Saturday was anything but even although the second for sure was even worse. So much for the theory of the Italians becoming fatigued and the Irish bench running riot in piling up the points.

The Azzurri were abysmal in that opening 40 and let's not pretend otherwise with a four-try 28-0 half-time lead fully reflective of what had gone before.

Credit Conor O'Shea for whatever was said at the interval and the much-improved showing that followed because given what we had witnessed, save for a possible five-metre pushover, I couldn't see any way in the wide world for Italy to cross the Ireland line - they were that bad.

It is with that perspective that Schmidt and his backroom staff will dissect this game. Eight tries to three sounds impressive and it is in cold stats but the three conceded will rankle. As ever, there was a mixed bag in terms of pluses and minuses. Injuries to Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan are the main concern.

Against that in strictly playing terms, the performance of Andrew Porter was particularly heartening. To shift from left wing to right is a major transformation in the modern game but to do so from loosehead to tight and operate so comfortably makes for a unique type of talent. To Greg Feek and Simon Easterby, Porter's comfort able disposition for almost the full 80 at this level will have provided enormous satisfaction. If ever a player came of age in a new and unaccustomed role, it was Porter when replacing the near irreplaceable Furlong so early in the game.

It is difficult not to feel for Leo Cullen and Leinster in all of this what with Josh van der Flier in addition to Furlong, Henshaw and Conan all falling to injury in the opening two games and, with respect to our continental friends, the toughest of tough opposition is still to come.

Already the sense is of the next Welsh tilt being one of the most physical ever between two teams desperate for a win.

Other positives? I made it 17 minutes in before our first box-kick with just three in total in that opening half. I wish there was a moral there but I do get the need for box-kicks on a horses-for-courses basis but that stat is enlightening nonetheless.

Significant too that Conor Murray still got man of the match and rightly so, although I again make reference to the form of Keith Earls. Whether with or without the ball he is a threat and in terms of working off the ball and corner-flagging, he is his father's son in every way.

He too would have been a worthy recipient of Ireland's best player on the day. Big performances too from Rob Kearney - the consummate goalkeeper - Jacob Stockdale, both centres (despite the odd pushed pass under pressure) and of course the halves. Given that the All Blacks are currently out of season, I think it fair to say that Murray and Johnny Sexton are by a proverbial mile the most complete half-back hub on the international circuit.

Kieran Marmion and Joey Carbery gave it their best shot and Carbery, in particular, had his deft moments but I would challenge the Auckland-born Athy man as to the critical career-shaping call he still needs to make going forward.

He can dismiss some people in the media - chiefly myself and Eddie O'Sullivan - in supporting the need for him to change provinces if he is to fulfil that desire to become a complete international out-half.

He has that potential over and above the ordinary when compared to Ross Byrne (left) or Ian Keatley but if I were Cullen or Schmidt selecting my back-up option at 10, then it would be Byrne and Keatley respectively as shadow to Sexton.

You cannot deliver on a Test stage what you are not replicating on a regular basis a level down. I am a Carbery fan because he has that adventurous streak with which I'd like to think I can identify. Yes, it can take teams down dead ends, but it can also win matches when backs are to the wall and resources stretched.

I want him to succeed but, barring injury to others, I cannot see how it can possibly happen at Leinster. The case for Jordan Larmour is more clear-cut with Kearney (the rock of solidity again on Saturday) under much more pressure for province than country.

Whether it is Luke McGrath and Keatley or Marmion and Carbery replacing Murray and Sexton the difference in terms of game management is marked. How could it be any other way?

The back-row to face the Welsh - on the assumption Seán O'Brien is still unavailable - will most likely be Peter O'Mahony (much more conspicuous against the Italians), Dan Leavy and CJ Stander.

Despite a couple of defensive glitches, Leavy is going to get better and better. He provides a clearer balance alongside O'Mahony and Stander and yet were I Schmidt I would find it extremely difficult to leave Conan out of the starting back-row if fit.

That's the type of conundrum Schmidt craves but the growing injury list has to be a concern. On balance, it's positive with next weekend's break perfectly timed.

Irish Independent

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