As a learning exercise, Saturday’s fraught encounter against Scotland was far more beneficial for Ireland than the rather benign Welsh clash the previous week. Put it this way: Joe Schmidt will have gleaned much and identified far more ‘work-ons’ to keep him busy over the next fortnight.
The bad news for those on the fringe of World Cup selection is that the time for experimentation is now over. After seven weeks in camp and two contrasting warm-up games, Schmidt has all the information he needs to complete his roster. In total, 35 different players have seen game time and that excludes at least six players who are deemed certain to make the cut.
It is somewhat surprising the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney have had no involvement in either match day squad to date while Rory Best and Paul O’Connell have only been utilised sparingly off the bench. From here on in Schmidt will concentrate on getting his first choice selection up to match speed with his strongest 15 set to start against both Wales and England.
Time is not on Cian Healy’s side as he continues his rehabilitation from neck surgery. In truth, his prospects look bleak. Schmidt has a big decision to make here and may be prepared to gamble on one of his key players being available a few weeks into the tournament. More on that anon.
Schmidt’s most impressive attribute throughout his tenure with Leinster and Ireland to date is that, regardless of the personnel involved and despite disruptive late changes of the type that saw O’Connell and Chris Henry withdrawn on the morning of tests against Scotland and South Africa and that last minute switch of Tommy O’Donnell for Sean O’Brien before last season’s Six Nations opener against Italy, the show continued with every player cognisant of his role.
That cohesiveness was strangely lacking last weekend, which was even more surprising given how seamless everything appeared only seven days previously in Cardiff. Despite an impressive start against a largely second string Scottish outfit, Ireland failed to capitalise on their set piece dominance. Alarm bells will also have started to ring after conceding twice as many tries in two games as Ireland did in the entire Six Nations campaign last season. Far too many straightforward, one-on-one tackles, were missed while, as a collective, the defensive system was far too passive.
The good news here is this will be addressed and rectified by defence specialist Les Kiss on the training ground. The disappointment for the perfectionist in Schmidt is that he would have thought the squad was past that point. With all the positive vibes surrounding the Irish squad at present, there is no harm in being reminded at this early juncture that much of the success of recent times is based on hard work and a manic adherence in doing the basics well. I expect to see those virtues back in situ when Wales arrive in Dublin on Saturday week.
Within hours of Saturday’s win, Schmidt sat back and watched main Pool D rivals France on their seasonal debut against England at Twickenham. For the first time in his tenure, French coach Philippe Saint-Andre has had uninterrupted access to his players, free of the overbearing interference of the clubs who pay the vast majority of the players wages.
The issue with Saint-Andre is you are not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing. Yet again he made changes at half-back with Francois Trinh-Duc starting for the first time in over two years. The coach has used 14 different half back pairings in his three seasons in charge - only to revert on Saturday to where it all started with Trinh-Duc reuniting with Morgan Parra for their 43rd appearance together. What does he do now? Stick or twist?
Schmidt should be an interested spectator for the rematch in Paris on Saturday night and will be interested to see first hand if France continue to develop their off-loading game which looked very good at times at Twickenham. That and the new, slimmed down, version of Toulouse powerhouse Louis Picamoles were the most impressive aspects of the French last weekend.
Down south, New Zealand again showed just how difficult a side they are to put away. You might catch them once, as Australia did in Sydney to capture the Rugby Championship 10 days ago, but they tend to bounce back better than most as the Wallabies discovered in their 41-13 whipping at Eden Park last Saturday.
They are not the first side to feel that backlash. Remember Ireland after the 22-19 defeat in Christchurch in 2012 when a draw was the least they deserved only to be massacred 60-0 in Hamilton seven days later. New Zealand don’t offer second chances.
Australia aren’t the first and certainly won’t be the last side to be filleted in Auckland but the occasion of Richie McCaw’s final appearance in the famous All Black jersey on home soil was always likely to trigger a special performance. The fact that grizzled warriors in Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Tony Woodcock and Kevin Mealamu were also bidding a home farewell to over a decade of service to the New Zealand cause was also likely to contribute to a special occasion. No side in world rugby could absorb the loss of that level of intellectual rugby property and hope to compete against a touring British and Irish Lions side within 18 months but in New Zealand the show goes on. No doubt they will be ready come 2017.
That was very evident in the fact two of the best performers against the Wallabies were relative newcomers in hooker Dane Coles, who scored a spectacular try, and yet another sensational wing talent in Nehe Milner-Skudder. A try scorer on debut against Australia in Sydney, he turned creator-in-chief this time out despite the fact he is probably their fourth choice wing.
At the other end of the scale sits the indefatigable McCaw. On Saturday he surpassed Brian O’Driscoll as the most capped player in rugby history. His record to date is truly astonishing.
On the day of his 142nd cap, he recorded a 125th win in an All Black jersey, his 104th as captain. When he first donned the shirt, against Ireland in Lansdowne Road in 2001, Warren Gatland was still directing Ireland’s fortunes. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and McCaw, man of the match on debut, has not only evolved into the most influential rugby presence of the professional era but arguably the game’s best ever player.
New Zealand may be ageing and perhaps a little more vulnerable in certain areas than we have seen them for some time but few would bet against McCaw becoming the first captain to lead a side to two World Cups successes. This guy revels in a challenge and watching him close out his international career over the next two months is but one of the many aspects to look forward to at the eagerly awaited tournament.
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