Sunday 22 April 2018

Dream start for Schmidt as Irish show cutting edge

Rob Kearney shows his delight as he races clear to score his side’s sixth try against Canada yesterday
Rob Kearney shows his delight as he races clear to score his side’s sixth try against Canada yesterday
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

By the time referee Craig Joubert brought a close to the France versus Italy game in Twickenham last night, more than 275,000 people had filled five stadiums to watch the opening weekend of the Rugby World Cup. What had started on Friday with the hosts looking like they were feeling the pressure of being in pole position, had taken on a different vibe once Ireland were finished with Canada.

And neither came close to the raw emotion that greeted the biggest upset in the tournament's history when later in the evening Japan, a Tier 2 nation, beat twice World Cup champions South Africa in Brighton.

In the opener England - in their hideous new strip, which they're knocking out for £120 per replica shirt - needed the bench to see off the challenge of Fiji. If Ireland were to end up in the same boat then Joe Schmidt knew he would have a public relations job on his hands. He hasn't.

Rather he was able to use his bench to spread the load. Everybody got a run, and having prayed beforehand to get them all back in the same shape as they went out, the coach got a lucky break. Better still they will be better for the experience, none moreso than Cian Healy.

Jack McGrath has done an excellent job at loose head but Healy's importance as both a carrier and scrummager is immense. By the time we come back to Cardiff in three weeks, to face France, you would hope his progress has continued.

Schmidt can't pick that team anywhere yet, except in his head. And yesterday his big selections worked out pretty well. Canada were not able to expose any lineout weakness in swapping Iain Henderson for Devin Toner, whose pain at being dropped was more acute given that he is not a bench player and thus lost out on the match day 22.

The debate on his value will kick off again when it comes to the France game. Yesterday Ireland showed us that they can play rugby - at one point we counted three offloads in one phase, which felt like a season's total when the stakes were higher. And that's how they will be next month, so some will suggest that Toner's lineout presence is imperative then.

The extension of this would be to shift the staggeringly good Iain Henderson to six. And right on cue Peter O'Mahony has a big game, carrying well yesterday and looking more comfortable than ever with ball in hand. Injury might yet make up Schmidt's mind for him, but expect Toner to deliver a big game against Romania in London next weekend.

By then we'll be clearer on Robbie Henshaw's progress. The chances are it will be Italy, a week later, by the time he's fit, so Schmidt will want to find out some more about his midfield. Defensively the combination of Luke Fitzgerald and Jared Payne was first class, but they look like they need the sort of time together that you can only get in club rugby.

That Schmidt ignored the claims of Darren Cave has left the Ulster centre with one hand on a tackle bag and the other in his pocket, so the only way we'll be seeing him at the sharp end is if the alarm bell has been rung.

So while the coach will be relieved at how things worked out here yesterday, his main preoccupation is over something he can't control: fitness. We know how unsettled he becomes when there is anything in the mix which he can't shape just as he wants, so you'll understand how difficult is the time ahead. He should consider the plight of his South African counterpart Heyneke Meyer.

Yesterday Schmidt sent his team out with a handful of power plays that were of a high order, and will work still against better teams than Canada. It contributed to the fans going home happy, and to Ireland opening their account here with a positive statement. When you consider the struggles of others, that's not a bad start.

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