On the face of it, a record win over a side positioned about us on the IRB rankings, scoring five tries in the process, should provide the perfect launchpad for any new national coach.
Joe Schmidt had reason to fret when he got sight of his opening assignment, given that Samoa had accounted for Wales, Scotland and Italy over the last 12 months, but it didn’t quite work out like that.
In those notable wins over Six Nations opposition, Samoa had a scrum and lineout with the capacity to produce decent ball for a quality attacking unit. Shorn of a trio of key set piece operators due to injury, they were deprived of that luxury this time out and Ireland took full advantage of their shortcomings.
The levels of expectation, on the back of Schmidt delivering four trophies in his three seasons with Leinster, are on the up with the Irish rugby public excited once more about the possibilities for this decent crop of talented Irish players. The new man at the helm is realist, however, and he was the first to pour cold water over this performance when interviewed after the game.
He knows that with Australia, buoyed by a morale-boosting 20-50 seven-try win over Italy, will be a far more difficult proposition next weekend. After that comes a New Zealand side that stuttered to develop any rhythm against France on Saturday night at the Stade de France but still managed to deliver another win in a city where Ireland have only won once since 1969.
As Ireland found out to their cost when Mike Ross got injured in Twickenham a few seasons ago, if you don’t have a competent tight head prop, your scrum is in big trouble.
Census Johnston is one of the game’s best operators in that area and his loss during the week was massive. His replacement Logovi’i Mulipola lasted a mere eight minutes before being replaced by another Johnston, Census’s younger brother James.
He is a decent operator but has had little game time lately since transferring from Harlequins to Saracens. Yet he, like Mulipola before him, was dominated both physically and technically by the excellent Jack McGrath, who enjoyed a memorable first cap. What would Australia give for an emerging front row talent like him? All of a sudden Cian Healy has McGrath breathing down his neck at club and country, not to mention Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin.
If the visitors’ scrum was poor, their lineout was a complete disaster zone. With just four lineout wins — some of which were a liability given the quality of delivery — peppered over the entire 80 minutes, Samoa had no meaningful platform from which to attack. Given their competency from this key phase over the summer, that was as much a testimony to Ireland’s decision to attack every Samoan throw as much as any deficiency on their part.
In possession, Samoa looked dangerous and their willingness to run, even from deep, caused Ireland more than a few headaches. By and large, apart from a few early blips, Ireland’s defence was excellent and will benefit from this outing. For the first time in 25 internationals dating back to 2009, Samoa failed to score a try and that is a tribute to Ireland’s first up and scramble work in the tackle.
It didn’t help either team that the game as a contest never developed a semblance of continuity, punctuated as it was by an increasingly high attrition rate in the contact area and far too many scrum resets.
Coming into the game, Schmidt would have been concerned about the potential for injuries given the explosiveness of the Samoans in the tackle and in the collisions but, on this occasion, it was the islanders who came off second best. The horrific accidental clash of heads which saw their excellent out half Tisi Pisi and winger Brando Vaaulu carried from the field entering the final quarter, ended the game as a contest and seemed to suck whatever life was left in the tourist out of them.
The positives, from an Irish perspective, primarily came from the less experienced brigade with Devin Toner matching McGrath’s scrummage success with a very productive day out of touch. Not alone was he the primary target but he also directed operations as the lineout leader, not least the reintroduction of a well-choreographed lineout maul which delivered the opening try of the game for Peter O’Mahony. More of the same against Australia would do nicely.
Behind the scrum, I’m developing a growing admiration for Paddy Jackson. This kid was thrown in at the deep end in a Heineken Cup final against Leinster two season ago and all but suffocated. Last March he was offered a first international start against Scotland in Murrayfield at a time when he was ill-equipped for the demands of test rugby. Not surprisingly, he struggled.
While he was far from perfect on Saturday — some of his kicking from hand was too deep and offered little opportunity for the chaser to stifle the natural counter-attacking abilities of the Samoans — he refused to be rattled. His much-maligned place-kicking was excellent, apart from a silly miss at the end, but what impresses me most about him is his temperament. He refuses to get rattled and that is a quality that will serve him well in the future. With Ian Madigan also impressing with his limited 10-minute cameo appearance in the centre and Johnny Sexton sure to start against the Wallabies next weekend, Ireland are beginning to develop much-needed depth in the key pivotal role.
No surprise that the biggest cheers on an occasion lacking any real atmosphere was reserved for the reappearance of Paul O’Connell in a green shirt for the first time since March 2012 (Ireland have played 14 internationals in that timeframe) and for the departure on 70 minutes of Brian O’Driscoll.
To last that long with just 73 minutes of rugby played since June says everything about him. His flick between the legs that created a try for the irrepressible Sean O’Brien was sheer class and a reminder of what we will miss when the autumn series comes calling again in 12 months’ time.
Savour his every moment.
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