Tuesday 16 January 2018

Fringe players step up to leave Schmidt with selection dilemma

Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The result was never in doubt but Joe Schmidt will have been quietly pleased with the individual performances of certain players who are looking to force their way into the reckoning for the more serious business of Italy this week.

On a record-breaking evening at Wembley in which 89,267 supporters, the vast majority of whom were wearing green, witnessed another piece of history as Keith Earls drew level with Brian O'Driscoll as Ireland's record World Cup try scorer.

Earls has been in scintillating form since returning from a lengthy lay-off and although his selection against Romania may have suggested that he had some work to do to ensure himself of his place in the starting XV on Sunday, come the full-time whistle he had surely inked his name into Schmidt's plans.

He took his two tries brilliantly to bring his World Cup tally to seven and he will now fancy his chances of surpassing O'Driscoll in the weeks ahead.

Focused

"I know Keith well enough to know that he'll be fully focused on what it meant for the team," Schmidt said afterwards.

"I thought he took the tries well. He's played really well in the two games so far.

"It's nice for him to be mentioned in the same sentence as Brian O'Driscoll because that's the standard that any back in an Irish back line wants to reach."

Earls' performance was indicative of a player desperate to take his chance ahead of the serious business of the pool.

Simon Zebo, Chris Henry, Tommy Bowe and Devin Toner are teetering on the fringes but they will have done their chances for selection no harm at all.

Donnacha Ryan showed signs of a return to his best and his 10 tackles (Ireland's second highest) typified his relentless work rate.

Ryan himself is on the comeback trail but he admitted that he still has some work to do before returning to the peak of his powers.

"I'm back to square one again, see how the review goes on Tuesday," Ryan responded when asked where he felt he was in terms of selection for the Italy game.

"I'm quite rusty still. It's never really good enough from my point of view but I'm just delighted to be playing.

"We're trying to raise the standard of everybody, pushing guys for places and pushing guys in training. We had a new set of guys in training in the week, guys were very tentative initially but excited about it and I think it showed out there.

"Guys were really determined to play well, be methodical and not force passes. I thought we were quite astute and played the game really well. So Joe will take that into account."

Ryan's sentiments echoed those of his coach and although there was again plenty of room for improvement, two games into the tournament and with maximum points, it's a position that they would have taken 10 days ago.

Robbie Henshaw is the only member of the 31-man squad not to have featured but the hope is that he will train fully this week.

The fact that 30 of the 31 have been used is a major boost for morale, according to Ryan:

"Everyone feeds off that contribution and it makes for a very happy squad. Everyone is delighted to get a run so hopefully over the next week or two, everyone will get a full blow-out."

As one of the many eager to force his way into this week's match-day squad, Ryan can relate to the pressure that players were under yesterday but he acknowledged that certain ones thrived under it.

"I thought Keith Earls was fantastic after he had a really long lay-off. He was electric," Ryan enthused.

"Zebo was as well. He's such a colourful player to watch. He just lights it up. Every time he gets the ball he wants to do exciting things.

"Tommy Bowe as well. They're competing for their places. It just makes selection different and it drives standards right throughout the squad."

Schmidt will continue to temper expectations which is probably just as well given that Ireland would have expected themselves to be where they are after two games.

The standard of opposition will increase this week although perhaps not as much as many may have expected prior to the tournament but nevertheless, Ryan urged caution.

"We played them four years ago in Dunedin and I'm sure they'll be gunning to make an improvement on that. We have to be aware of that and focus on what we have to do and take it from there."

The Ireland squad head for Guildford this afternoon ahead of another intense week and come Friday when Schmidt names his team, one expects that he'll have had a few sleepless nights.

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