The Irish left Cardiff for St George’s Park in Burton-on- Trent yesterday having achieved all they possibly could in dispatching Canada at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Spirits had already been high after the squad eventually arrived at the tournament last Wednesday following a summer at home and got their first taste of the England 2015 atmosphere. Their opening Pool D encounter did nothing but enhance the feelgood vibe.
A seven-try romp in front of a massive travelling army of Irish supporters, who made up the vast majority of the 68,523 crowd and turned the Welsh citadel into a green-hued fortress can only have had a positive influence on the mindsets of Schmidt’s players and the way they went about their business on Saturday showed a squad in determined mood to get on with things.
Yes, this was as straightforward an introduction as they could have hoped for, against lower-tier opposition without a full complement of professionals in their ranks. And yes, Ireland were expected to win at a canter.
Yet Ireland were able to meet their objectives. The potential dangers of failing to do so had been outlined beforehand by team management, who had shown the players video clips of the 2007 World Cup mis-steps against Namibia and Georgia.
They were less subtly hammered home post-match as South Africa came a cropper, their stuttering deservedly punished by a fearless, wonderful Japan performance in an epic encounter.
In that light, Ireland’s execution of their mission was a considerable success. With Johnny Sexton in blistering form at fly-half, spraying pinpoint passes and kicks out of hand — even launching an audacious cross-field kick to Jared Payne from in front of his posts — and Paul O’Connell’s forwards dominant at the set-piece and breakdown.
A yellow card for Canada’s captain and linchpin Jamie Cudmore in the 18th minute certainly accelerated his country’s demise, his 10-minute trip to the sin bin seeing Ireland move from 3-0 to 22-0 ahead as Ireland exploited every advantage the Clermont lock’s absence provided. First they mauled Canada into row z as Sean O’Brien got the try to get the party started. Then Iain Henderson showed why his supreme athleticism and physicality is now a must in the Irish second row as he dragged four Canadians over the line with him for the second try of the power play, Ireland’s 100th World Cup try.
And to cap it off was a devastating break for the corner from Sexton after an exchange of passes with O’Brien. The fly-half’s tactical kicking had gained the territory for the first two tries, which he had converted, but this finish was all his, the icing on the cake of a 55-minute performance suitably complete to give him the man of the match award.
The bonus point was achieved before half-time, Sexton unleashing his backline with another sharp midfield interplay to set Dave Kearney in motion, the wing leaving opposite number DTH van der Merwe rooted to the spot on the way to a 29-0 Ireland half-time lead.
“There’s only so many ways you can play the game but what we did was play really well three-dimensionally,” head coach Schmidt said.
“I thought there was great width, but I also thought there was great depth to our attack and I think Johnny found some really good space in behind that allowed us to get some good territory. At the same time, if they were looking to protect the territory, we took it at them on the edges. The number of guys who have got good experience now, who can read a game and get a fair bit of licence to do exactly that.
“So, what we try to do is give them the tools to put that together and one of the things about having the tools is guys understanding their roles but also being individually capable of making the links that need to be put together. I thought our passing game was pretty good.”
Sterner tests lie ahead against Six Nations opposition, first with Italy and then with France in the likely pool decider back in Cardiff on October 11 but Ireland next face Romania, at Wembley this Sunday. Importantly for Schmidt, he has time around that game to further iron out some wrinkles as well as broaden the World Cup experience in his squad with a team that introduces fringe players while building momentum towards that crucial pool finale.
For Ireland provided a number of opportunities in the second half for Schmidt to keep everyone on their toes at St George’s Park this week. The foot came off the gas after half-time, O’Connell was sin-binned for an offside and the first score of the second period did not come until an injection of impetus from the bench, sub hooker Sean Cronin making an immediate impact with a try under the posts in the 65th minute, Ian Madigan with the first of three conversions. Payne’s kick ahead moments later was blocked on halfway by van der Merwe, who scored his country’s only try, but Ireland, this time prompted by Madigan, finished with a flourish, Rob Kearney and Payne rounding things off in style.
“You just try to tailor your package for your opponent,” Schmidt concluded. “We’ve probably, not stifled ourselves but probably been relatively content to ease our way through (pre-season games).
“I think we’re too competitive to give up Test results but the major priority is not the pre-season so I do think that it’s really important to work your way through that.
“So what we worked through today was great for today and it’ll be a little bit different for next week.” A good, solid start. Job done. On with the show.
R Kearney; D Kearney, J Payne, L Fitzgerald (S Zebo, 74), K Earls; J Sexton (I Madigan, 55), C Murray (E Reddan, 65); J McGrath (C Healy, 60), R Best (S Cronin, 60), M Ross (N White, 60); I Henderson, P O’Connell – captain (D Ryan, 74); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (C Henry, 63), J Heaslip.
M Evans (L Underwood, h-t; R Thorpe, 75); J Hassler (C Trainor, h-t), C Hearn, N Blevins, DTH van der Merwe; N Hirayama, G McRorie (P Mack, 48); H Buydens (D Sears-Duru, 47), R Barkwill (B Piffero, 63), D Wooldridge (A Tiedemann, 65); B Beukeboom, J Cudmore – captain; K Gilmour (J Sinclair, 47), J Moonlight, A Carpenter.
Glen Jackson (New Zealand)