RONAN O'GARA: Trying to read between the lines in November

It mightn’t be the Six Nations but in a World Cup year, the autumn series of Tests is what GAA fans feel at the start of the national leagues every spring, writes Ronan O'Gara

When you’re hitting updates on the phone, looking for Test teams for the weekend, November’s actually arrived. It mightn’t be the Six Nations but in a World Cup year, the autumn series of Tests is what GAA fans feel at the start of the national leagues every spring. A little quickening of the step.

Nobody faffing around with experimentation. Well, perhaps the France team has that sense of ‘really?’ about it, but that’s classic Gallic anyway. La Rochelle’s Geoffrey Doumayro will be getting an opportunity at centre alongside Mathieu Bastareaud for the Stade de France meeting with the Springboks.

Because it’s ‘really’ November now, Rassie Erasmus can add his European-based players like Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk to the set-up. After the titanic efforts against the All Blacks in Wellington and Pretoria, the Boks head coach doesn’t want momentum to dip in any way.

Many things separate the hemispheres in rugby terms, but one constant is that the chief focus for any top-tier nation is a Test match against New Zealand.

There are a great many reasons the All Blacks are on that elevated plateau. One is that they are full-on, all the time. England may no longer be the biggest cat in town in the northern hemisphere, but Steve Hansen knows the significance of tomorrow better than anyone.

He has picked an interesting XV with a very strong bench. Richie Mo’unga, Damien McKenzie and Beauden Barrett offer all sorts of inventive options with two of them on the field at the same time. If injuries intervened at Twickenham, you might even see Mo’unga at 10, McKenzie on the wing and Beauden Barrett at 15.

McKenzie lightens the play-making load on Beauden Barrett and forms part of a dynamic back three with Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith.

Given the talent of Owen Farrell and the dynamic thrust of a Chris Ashton, some might make a case for England at Twickenham but it’s a long shot. That sense of buzz and unity that took Eddie Jones on a 20-game run seems to have dissipated.

They could end up being dismantled tomorrow. Even looking at the All Blacks bench, four of the real Crusaders stalwarts — Barrett, Todd, Mo’unga and Crotty — were pivotal figures in winning a second successive Super Championships. I’ve mentioned Matt Todd here before, a serious competitor with a big engine.

Kieran Read has been lightly-raced to date and at 33, everything for the captain is being geared towards one last World Cup in Japan before he considers his next move. It might be in this part of the world.

But beating England, and Ireland next week, is important enough for Hansen to go fully loaded. With the (possible) exception of Joe Moody, whose rotten luck with injuries continues, the All Blacks team for tomorrow is full strength.

Ireland can wait is the message. And remember, this is a nation at the end of their rugby season.

I am sure, at a push, Garry Ringrose could have been involved for Ireland tomorrow against Argentina. Joe Schmidt has the option of leaving Tadhg Beirne out also this weekend, but he will be hard to exclude in a week’s time.

The autumn schedule has fallen beautifully for Jordan Larmour. Because Italy were so poor in Chicago, the game was a non-event, leaving the media scratching for an angle. The biggest winner in that vacuum was Larmour, whose tries were excellent, and made him the obvious line.

Ireland under Schmidt has such a settled look to it these days that dislodging an incumbent is no easy feat. A hat-trick of tries in a Soldier Field mismatch mighn’t have been enough if New Zealand were the opposition in Dublin tomorrow, but Larmour has the right people curious and with Rob Kearney not available, the only disappointed one is Andrew Conway.

I enjoyed an interesting few days in Chicago with the IRFU. Much of what went on around the game was more interesting than the 80 minutes against Conor O’Shea’s side. It was a case of one team who didn’t know how to score against a superior unit who were making life difficult for themselves.

Eventually, Ireland reckoned ‘Okay, we actually have the tools here to carve these lads up’. Italy huffed and puffed for all their worth. I was watching Conor O’Shea during the game. Below the top-tier of nations, Test rugby is an unforgiving and at times, dispiriting place.

I got a revealing insight into the IRFU and the voluntary side of administration. There was a bit of pressing the flesh, encouraging philanthropic donations to help bolster finances towards the IRFU’s Centre of Excellence at Abbotstown.

By Sunday morning, Joe Schmidt was already moving on. One of his core philosophies is they don’t talk about results and schedules. It’s all about getting better every week they’re in camp.

The excellence is in poring over videos and improving players by watching clips. What many of us might have seen as a non-event, Joe saw as learnings for players.

If you do that next time out, that decreases the likelihood of a strong performance from us.

He never talks outcomes, he only talks processes.

His skill is being able to fix those details before he goes back to the training pitch to work with a substantially different set of players this week, in preparation for Argentina. Nevertheless, the key point is that it’s the same philosophy.

It’s not a question of buying in, it just becomes part of a player’s good habits. I was only talking to Paul O’Connell about that on Wednesday night. Anyone who comes out of that Schmidt system does so with a different set of expectations.

The truth — though Joe won’t dare breathe it — is Ireland could under-perform tomorrow at the Aviva and win. That won’t happen the following week. Home advantage against Argentina is a serious big deal. If the Pumas are mentally at it on the pitch, it will be an interesting struggle. If they’re not, it could be a long day for them.

One has to anticipate the first scenario. They’ve two good guys at the helm in Mario Ledesma and Gonzalo Quesada, ex-internationals of the highest calibre, who the players will really connect with. They had no joy, like South Africa, against New Zealand but played well at times in the Rugby Championship.

They have changed up their tight five game to a 15-man game.

Emiliano Boffelli, at full-back, is a big, rangy talent with a good fend, and a solid kicking game. Nicolas Sanchez at 10 can be very hot, but inconsistent. He has signed to go to Paulie’s Stade and will go there after this tour.

But he has considerable Top 14 experience already in Bordeaux and Toulon. I’m not sure he’s at the level to move Ireland about the place though. That system check is a week away.


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