During this year’s Six Nations, the vast majority of the players on show last Saturday were either watching from the bench, the stands or from the comfort of their couches.
With that in mind, and this being the first of four warm-up matches in the run-up to the Rugby World Cup, it was no great surprise that those who made their way to Aviva Stadium were far from overwhelmed by the fare on show.
The predictable headlines were the two debutants Jean Kleyn and Mike Haley getting their chances, while elsewhere there were players with much to prove – those in a scrap for particular positions, those who know they’re far from guaranteed a seat on the plane to Japan.
But the less predictable headline was was the one least wanted: injury, and worse; injury to a key player.
Joey Carbery was making just his fifth start for Ireland, a 19th appearance in total – and at half time things were going to plan. The Munster out-half had scored his first try at Test level, and been involved in Dave Kearney’s try too.
The former Leinster man was adding to the argument that he’s as comfortable in the green No 10 shirt as he was in the red of Munster last season, but the narrative shifted abruptly just nine minutes after the restart when he was removed from the pitch wiping the tears from his eyes.
— RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) August 10, 2019
Joe Schmidt, the Ireland head coach, attempted to put a positive spin on things right after the match ended, optimistic that the ankle injury should not keep him out of the World Cup.
The Kiwi would say that, and hope that, of course, but there’s likely to have been some very nervous people at Carton House last night – as Carbery’s injury slowly begins to reveal its seriousness.
Jack Carty did well when he took to the field, apart from whacking a conversion off the post, and will be wondering if things are simply falling his way this year.
He got a chance ahead of Ross Byrne during the Six Nations, and the Connacht man will be hoping his confidence when given a shot – as well as his provincial familiarity with scrum-half Kieran Marmion – keeps him ahead of Byrne, and might yet push him further up the ladder.
Elsewhere, others had a chance to impress – but most failed to.
Starting up front, Jack McGrath, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Jean Kleyn and Tommy O’Donnell have plenty to prove and Kleyn, making his debut just days after becoming eligible for Ireland, was praised by Schmidt post match.
The South African lock impressed while singing Amhrán na BhFiann, but not everyone will have been as enthused at Schmidt says he was.
Kleyn was slow at the concession of Italy’s second try and while he was the second top tackler in green, the bulky lock didn’t dominate as he might have against such opposition.
Devin Toner, James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne look short odds to make up the second row quartet for Japan – to get beyond any, Kleyn will need to show more in the coming weeks.
Jack McGrath left the field at half-time, and must be worrying about his place on the plane, replaced by John Ryan, more commonly a tighthead, while Herring lasted just 20 minutes before being replaced by Niall Scannell.
Ryan and Seán Cronin’s minutes in the next few weeks will be instructive.
Andrew Conway, man of the match on the day, Garry Ringrose – who pushed him close - and Jordan Larmour did well, as did Dave Kearney, making his first start since 2017.
The Leinster man was once a Schmidt favourite – on the bench for his first game against Samoa in 2013 - before starting all five games as Ireland won the 2014 Six Nations.
Four starts followed at the 2015 World Cup, before injuries and form took over – but he stepped up on Saturday.
Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Larmour and Conway look likely to nail down the wing positions for Japan, but as Carbery’s injury fear shows, a shock is always around the corner.
If giving yourself the chance to step up is all a fringe player can do, Kearney did his job better than most.