Wednesday 19 June 2019

Joe Schmidt: 'We don't want to peak too soon'

Wales 21-35 Ireland

Ireland’s Jack McGrath reacts under pressure in a ruck during Saturday’s game against Wales at the Millennium Stadium
Ireland’s Jack McGrath reacts under pressure in a ruck during Saturday’s game against Wales at the Millennium Stadium
Richard t Strauss is tackled by Wales’ Alex Cuthbert (L) and Dominic Day
Ireland’s captain for the day Jamie Heaslip scores the game’s opening try
Keith Earls races clear to score his side’s third try
Paddy Jackson showed some nice touches
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Having managed to convince Warren Gatland to close the roof on the Millennium Stadium last Saturday to replicate World Cup conditions, Joe Schmidt's next challenge will be keeping a lid on expectations.

The coach must have needed a whole packet of paracetamol to deal with the number of headaches his players left him with as they hit the ground at pace and ran right over a terrible Wales side.

The news that the victory had sent Ireland to new heights on the World Rugby rankings table won't have done him any good either. Only the All Blacks sit above the European champions now and their defeat to Australia showed their humanity at just the right time.

The only real blot on the copybook for Ireland was the serious injury suffered by Tommy O'Donnell long after the game had been put to bed.

In reality, the Munster flanker was unlikely to make the plane initially but the suspected hip dislocation could remove a reliable back-up if anyone else goes down.

The concern for the players is that Wales' effort was so bad that it might count against them when Schmidt reviews the tape. Even Canada and Romania won't be as accommodating when the big show rolls around.

Tries don't usually come this easy in international rugby as all five tries saw Irish players cross the line unimpeded. The excellent Jamie Heaslip led the charge, with Darren Cave and Felix Jones following suit before half-time, and Simon Zebo and Felix Jones crossing after the break.

What Saturday possibly proved most was how the bodies in the jerseys might change, but the standard expected by the head coach remains constant.

This didn't feel like a second string performance and the hope is that, as frontline players are re-introduced, the standard set on Saturday will be matched and surpassed as the tournament approaches.

"It's just about building from here," Schmidt said after praising fitness guru Jason Cowman for delivering his squad in such good condition.

"It's nice to be sharp but we don't want to peak too soon. We want to make sure we keep getting little gains over the next four to six weeks leading into that first match because I do think we have to be good right from the start."

This was all about opportunity, with the starting XV and Simon Zebo - introduced early for an injured Andrew Trimble - all tearing into their task with the knowledge their chance might not come around again.

They can thank some of the safer members of the squad for their commitment to the cause, starting with the skipper Heaslip, who was the best player on the pitch, and the 50-cap Mike Ross who was a dominant presence at scrum time.

That allowed the backs to thrive, with Paddy Jackson (pictured above) showing some nice touches that were undermined by an erratic day off the tee, and the centres working well in tandem with Keith Earls going some way to booking his place in the squad.

Outside them, the back-three conundrum just gets more difficult after the performance of Jones, Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Zebo and, of course, Earls himself, who is likely to get a run on the wing in the weeks to come.

Once again, an opposition coach admitted that nothing Ireland did surprised him, but the execution of a simple gameplan did untold damage.

Ireland's scrum and defensive line-out were superb and, O'Donnell aside, the pack can start to feel comfortable about their September plans.

Helped by a pristine platform, Eoin Reddan's service was excellent and he signalled his intent to push Conor Murray all the way for a starting slot.

It all amounted to a hugely satisfying first-half performance, with Cave and Earls brimming with threat and quick ball allowing Heaslip open the scoring, before a dominant scrum created space for Cave to saunter over.

Perhaps the highlight of the half was Trimble's monstrous tackle on Eli Walker from which Earls pounced to cap his return with a try, but while Schmidt was upbeat about the Ulster winger's injury, the fact it's another foot problem must surely be a concern.

Wales hit back with a well-worked Richard Hibbard try that exposed Ireland's lack of numbers at the front of the line-out and, while Simon Easterby and Les Kiss won't be happy, it's better they know they're short-staffed there now rather than in six weeks' time.

Zebo grabbed a fourth try after some good work from Heaslip before the winger threw a sensational double-skip pass for Jones to score.

Schmidt was impressed with the execution, even if the idea was a little too risky for his tastes.

As the bench emptied, Ireland's attention wavered and the coach wasn't happy with the two tries given up in the last 10 minutes and the lack of discipline encapsulated by Chris Henry's yellow card. Justin Tipuric's effort was a fine team try, while Ireland looked to have been spooked by O'Donnell's harrowing injury when Alex Cuthbert scored at the death.

By that stage, the large Cardiff crowd had started drifting back outside to the sunshine and the coaches began to think about what impact the day would have on their selections.

"That's a good question," Schmidt said when asked if anyone had changed his mind. "People change my mind when I've had a really good look the footage. I get an impression of how guys are going... there were a few guys who confirmed to me they are hoping to make my decisions difficult and that is exactly what you want."

Ireland: F Jones; A Trimble (S Zebo 35), K Earls (I Madigan 68), D Cave, F McFadden; P Jackson, E Reddan (K Marmion 68); J McGrath (D Kilcoyne 51), R Strauss (R Best 65), M Ross (M Bent 58), I Henderson (D Tuohy 51), D Ryan, J Murphy, J Heaslip (capt; C Henry 56; yc 59-69), T O'Donnell (73)

Wales: H Amos; A Cuthbert, T Morgan, S Williams (M Morgan 56), E Walker; J Hook (G Anscombe 56), M Phillips; N Smith, R Hibbard, A Jarvis, J Ball, D Day, R Moriarty (yc 46), D Baker (T Faletau ht), J Tipuric

Referee: G Jackson (New Zealand)

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