Saturday 21 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: A good dose of reality won't do any harm in the build-up

'While Joe Schmidt will not be happy with several aspects of Saturday’s game, he won’t be displeased that it will reduce some of the hype'
'While Joe Schmidt will not be happy with several aspects of Saturday’s game, he won’t be displeased that it will reduce some of the hype'
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Well, that was a display to perhaps bring a dose of reality to proceedings and while Joe Schmidt will not be happy with several aspects of Saturday's game, he won't be displeased that it will reduce some of the hype.

Ireland have gone into this warm-up campaign with a fairly low-key approach. Ireland have never been comfortable dealing with high expectation but they managed it earlier this season in retaining the Six Nations.

The performance last week against Wales, which pushed Ireland up to second in the world rankings for the first time ever, cranked up the expectation level to new heights, with talk starting to emerge about how Ireland can win the World Cup.

And this for a country which has never got past the quarter-finals?

Optimism

The key to success at this level is having a rock-solid system and, ideally, at least two sets of players who can carry that out. These two games against Wales and Scotland have, by and large, been about testing the level of that depth while, of course, giving players the chance to book their seat on the plane.

The win over Wales suggested we are in rude health, the back-up is strong and the optimism is well founded. Saturday suggested we might not be as strong as all that but in the general scheme of things that game against Scotland could be worth a lot more to Ireland than the one in Cardiff a week earlier.

First off, Scotland were a better team than the Welsh side we faced last week. Yet, while Vern Cotter is improving Scotland all the time, they are still a good bit off what will be there at the business end of the World Cup.

The missed tackle count of 23 is only one more than what Ireland missed in Wales, but basic statistics can often paint a different picture. The missed tackles against Scotland were more glaring and I'd imagine Les Kiss must have been fuming.

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There were a lot of soak tackles, Scottish players getting over the gain-line, Irish players falling off the tackles. The key factor in Schmidt's success, first with Leinster and now with Ireland, is that every facet of the game is carried out with a very high level of accuracy. That just wasn't there in the tackle on Saturday.

But I don't think anyone will be panicking. This is what these warm-up games are for. You also have to take into account that the vast majority of the players were starting their first game on Saturday. It looked like a pre-season game whereas last week in Cardiff appeared like something from the middle of the season.

I thought the maul, scrum and lineout were good, it was the stuff in between which was not up to the standard expected or required. And the reality is that better teams than Scotland will punish that lack of accuracy.

On one hand you are looking at the performance from a team perspective, on the other you are trying to assess who has enhanced chances of selection.

I thought Simon Zebo really put his hand up at full-back. There are so many tight calls to be made with the back five - I've said before it's going to be the hardest sector to select - that versatility is going to be paramount.

Zebo will feel he has further work to do on defence but he has the X-factor and he certainly did his cause a lot of good on Saturday, although he was lucky to escape without a yellow card.

I thought Ian Madigan also had a very good game, especially in the second half, his crosskick for Luke Fitzgerald's try was sublime, but he should have nailed that penalty for the win.

Dave Kilcoyne also made the most of his chance. He scrummaged really well and while he was pinged a few times, his overall performance was good.

Pressure

Chris Henry was another to show he is hitting top form and has put his health scare behind him, while Sean O'Brien's display will have heartened Schmidt. He is one of the anchors that the World Cup hopes is built on.

But it didn't happen for others. Gordon D'Arcy, who owes nothing to Irish rugby after such a wonderful career, and Dan Tuohy needed super games. Isaac Boss and Tommy Bowe are not under the same pressure but would have looked for bigger displays, and I thought Jack Conan carried very well on his debut and will benefit from stepping up to this level.

Nathan White also did very well on his debut and Marty Moore will rightly be worried. That front row battle is a matrix, it really all depends on whether Cian Healy will be fit. But I think he will, all the indications are that he is improving, but Schmidt will need to allow for two scenarios: one where he has Healy and one where he doesn't.

I think Schmidt and his management will be pleased overall with the two games.

Of course you go out to win every match and produce the maximum performance but a wake-up call in warm-up matches never does any harm.

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