Tuesday 16 January 2018

Alan Quinlan: Keith Earls and Simon Zebo look to be undroppable now for Joe Schmidt

Alan Quinlan

While yesterday's win against Romania was far from Ireland's slickest display of the Joe Schmidt era, the coach will be pretty happy to have earned another victory at a bouncing Wembley.

The team performance was not perfect, but there were plenty of individual displays that caught the eye. The back three all impressed me hugely, while a couple of the forwards put in strong performances to boost their standing.

But we saw glimpses there that showed exactly what this Ireland team are capable of. Romania were forced to make a staggering 31 tackles in the first three minutes when Ireland looked powerful and dangerous, while some of the finishing from the wingers was out of the top drawer.

Conceding that try late on shows we can switch off, but Romania were what we thought they were going to be: they made it hell at times. There were some sloppy periods of play, but a few mistakes and errors are no harm at all. We're moving along nice and quietly, so to get through that game with no major injuries is great. I have a good feeling about how we are moving forward.

Undroppable

Yesterday was a huge occasion for some of the guys just on the edge of the match-day 23 and we saw a couple of them step up with big displays. Keith Earls and Simon Zebo look to be undroppable now after excellent performances, while Tommy Bowe was back to his usual self with two tries and a solid defensive shift. The big question is has he done enough to play himself back into the team?

Much of the focus before the game was on Devin Toner and if he could answer Iain Henderson's recent good form with a top performance, and he came out as Ireland's best forward on the day.

Toner showed us what he brings to the team, not only at lineout time when he was almost faultless, but from crucial restart plays where he dominated. But Toner was not on his own in impressing in the pack, where Chris Henry and Donnacha Ryan caught my eye. Henry came away with a team-best 14 carries, while Ryan was at his spoiling best on defensive lineouts and put in an excellent defensive display.

Henderson's inclusion should now be a certainty, and I fully expect to see him start in the second-row alongside Paul O'Connell next weekend. But Toner has shown once again that he is a quality lock and if he is called upon he'll deliver.

These selection dilemmas are nice problems to have, but Ireland will not be happy with the control of their rolling mauls. Before the hour mark they had four attempts to launch their strongest attacking weapon, but on all four occasions they failed to convert for a variety of reasons. When we finally saw Ireland score off a maul with a few minutes remaining there was nothing fancy: it was down to sheer grunt as they chased Romania back over their line.

Another big positive to come from Wembley was Cian Healy's return to the starting line-up. Healy will be delighted to have got 54 successful minutes under his belt against a powerful scrummaging outfit.

His set-piece was solid, but as always, we saw plenty more from the Leinster man. With ball in hand he carried powerfully, he tackled like a demon too and to see him pull one of the best kicks of the game out of the hat in the lead-up to Earls's second try was top-class.

He had a couple of handling errors, but that's to be expected after such a long lay-off. With bigger games to come it's a huge plus for the Irish management to have Healy back fit.

While Jared Payne wasn't at his best yesterday, I have no doubt that he'll renew his partnership with Robbie Henshaw next weekend if the Connacht man is fully fit.

Payne is a good footballer and probably hasn't been helped by not having a regular partner alongside him in recent weeks. He'll be asked to tighten up his kicking game, but I have no doubt he has a big part to play for Ireland in the games ahead.

Darren Cave did his case no harm at all with a bright performance yesterday and Luke Fitzgerald also impressed against Canada, but they'll do well to edge past Payne in my opinion.

Briefly it appeared as if Rob Kearney might emerge as an injury concern after he limped off, but he seemed to walk around okay afterwards and early indications are that he'll be okay.

Training in the next few days will make for interesting viewing. I cannot remember such competition in an Ireland squad, and some top players will miss out on a spot in the team and even the 23.

But what you want at this stage of the competition is options in selection and a fit squad and other than knocks to Kearney and Henshaw, Ireland look to be in good shape.

In an already pulsating competition, the Ireland challenge is warming up nicely.

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