It is difficult to imagine a coach as demanding as Joe Schmidt putting his feet up on Saturday night and thinking he has this World Cup campaign nicely sized up.
Yet as Ireland closed out their pre-tournament schedule with an encouraging victory in Dublin over Wales that secured their ascension to the top of the world rankings for the first time, those outside his bubble will have relaxed a small bit, reassured that Schmidt’s men will head to Japan this week in a good place and trending upwards as the clock counts down to their opening game against Scotland in 13 days.
There will never be certainty, of course — that is not the way sport works. But two weeks on from Ireland’s unravelling against England, there has been enough in the past two performances, away and then home wins over the Grand Slam winners, to suggest this is a squad coming nicely to the boil ahead of the potentially decisive pool game against the Scots in Yokohoma’s International Stadium a week on Sunday.
The Twickenham game on August 24 undoubtedly came too soon for a playing group coming off a training camp conducted in energy-sapping heat on Portugal’s Algarve, and England’s finely-tuned, high-intensity power game on a similarly blistering afternoon in London was all too much for a starting XV, many of whom
of which too many
were only embarking on their first competitive outings of the summer.
That is not to excuse the shambles of that 57-15 record hammering, the worst of Schmidt’s six-and-a-half-year tenure, but to place it in context. The evidence of Saturday’s Aviva Stadium performance, though still far from perfect, puts Twickenham into further perspective, and Schmidt was understandably satisfied his frontline players are getting their mojo back at the right time.
This was a sharper, more accurate and physically intense performance, the best of the summer. A strong set-piece, after wobbles at the lineout returned early on and were then eradicated, bristling physicality on the gainline, committed defence and three well-executed tries from Rob Kearney, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan eclipsed a Welsh display that lacked the sharpness and defensive solidity of their Six Nations campaign.
There were excellent returns to the jersey for Johnny Sexton in tandem with half-back partner Conor Murray, and Robbie Henshaw, whose midfield partnership with Bundee Aki looks the pick of the potential centre pairings, while CJ Stander’s switch from No.8 to the blindside offered a reminder of the Munster back-rower’s impact with ball in hand.
So too James Ryan — not that anyone needed reminding of his influence in the Irish pack. The lock’s 58th-minute try capped a forceful man-of-the-match performance, while his ability to correct the early errors at the lineout, when the first two throws were poached, also marked him out as a player more than capable of thinking on his feet.
Where this all takes Ireland heading into that pivotal Scotland game is still anyone’s guess. Schmidt’s passion to take Ireland further than the quarter-final for the first time is as every bit as intense as his players’ athletic commitment to the contact area was on Saturday, but he insisted that passion to finish on a high must not become part of the picture. Twelve weeks of pre-season are almost at an end, the flight for Tokyo leaves on Wednesday and there is still no allowance for anything other than nervousness.
“Yes, nervous,” Schmidt agreed. “I finish in two months’ time and it is so important to me and I can’t let that be part of the equation. It is still very much all about getting the very best out of those 31 men who will be looking to get the very best out of themselves. Now, we are also realistic about what these matches are as opposed to two weeks’ time and what those Tests matches become.
“But we are also pragmatic enough to know there are a number of things in that first quarter that we didn’t do very well and that all goes into the melting pot as you are trying to make sure that the next recipe is slightly better.”
Schmidt has 13 days to decide on the final ingredients.
IRELAND: R Kearney; J Larmour, R Henshaw, B Aki, K Earls (G Ringrose, 52); J Sexton (J Carty, 63), C Murray (L McGrath, 72); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, h-t - HIA), R Best - Captain (S Cronin, 52), T Furlong (A Porter, 56); J Ryan, J Kleyn (I Henderson, 52); CJ Stander, J van der Flier (R Ruddock, 59), J Conan.
WALES: L Halfpenny (L Williams, 66); G North, J Davies, H Parkes, J Adams; R Patchell (D Biggar, 23), T Williams (G Davies, 69) ; W Jones (N Smith, 59), E Dee (K Owens, 59), T Francis (D Lewis, 59), J Ball (A Beard, 74), A W Jones - captain, A Wainwright, J Tipuric, R Moriarty (J Navidi, 59).
Yellow card: Beard - 78 mins
REFEREE: Mathieu Raynal (France).