Rejigged back three proves value of Joe’s four-year plan

Well, that’s one itch scratched. Partially, anyway.

Rejigged back three proves value of Joe’s four-year plan

Well, that’s one itch scratched. Partially, anyway.

Joe Schmidt had waited four years to get back to a World Cup. He’d passed the time profitably enough, of course, but there was no doubting how much this would have meant to put to bed the memories of the 2015 quarter-final in Cardiff, when an Irish team, stripped of so much class and experience by injuries and a suspension, had fallen so far short of Argentina.

It’s too early to make full declarations yet, given the doubts over Peter O’Mahony and Bundee Aki for next weekend’s game against Japan and at least one assignment to come that will be so much tougher than anything the Scots offered up, but the signs yesterday suggested that Schmidt has succeeded, to some extent at least, in strengthening his depth.

With Robbie Henshaw absent here, and Aki failing to reappear after failing to pass an early HIA, Ireland were down to two recognised centres at this tournament and yet Chris Farrell gave a superb display. No surprise there. The Munster midfielder has plugged into the team’s current plenty of times before and he’s always been a positive charge.

With Tadhg Beirne sitting in the sin bin towards the end, there came a point when Schmidt’s side packed down for a scrum with CJ Stander in the second row, NiallScannnell filling in at blindside and Farrell trying not to look out of place at openside and still Scotland couldn’t score. But then Ireland had been making do from the off.

Like Henshaw, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls would have started here had their bodies allowed and, while Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway are fine talents, slotting both of them into the same unit was always going to be a useful litmus test of Schmidt’s tinkering and tailoring through this last World Cup cycle.

Larmour, Conway and Jacob Stockdale had played just once together as a unit prior to this Pool A opener. There was no evidence of that as they delivered performances that were individually notable in their own rights and exactly in sync with what the team needed on a night when conditions were muggy, wet and tricky.

“Back-three wise, it’s not like the centres,” said Conway when this unfamiliarity was offered up as a possible issue beforehand. “There are three of you as opposed to the two. I have played with Jordan and Jacob plenty. We haven’t played as a three that much but we are all very used to each other.

We have trained together for three years now for the most part. I know what the guys are good at. I know what they are thinking a lot of the time, which is where you want to be as a back-three and where Rob (Kearney) and (Keith) Earlsy have developed that over a long time and Jacob in the last few years.

Conway had heard the pre-match chat.

He knew the conversations people were having about his area of operations and whether Ireland would miss the likes of Kearney and Earls, but he knows there is a tendency for supporters and media to pine for the things they can’t have. A ‘grass always greeners’ syndrome as the Munster player put it himself in the mixed zone.

“You can’t really avoid it,” he added. “As much as I won’t go looking at what all you guys are saying leading into the game, it’s tough to avoid because other people like your family.

“But I actually like that. Whenever you are... not written off, but whenever there is a bit of panic media-wise when a few lads are out, it gives you a nice gesture to put up to some people who don’t think you are up to to the task.”

Conway, who claimed Ireland’s fourth and last try, wasn’t alone in looking to prove people wrong. A handful of Irish players all made similar soundings, CJ Stander among them. Stockdale was another who admitted that he likes to feed off the sort of negativity that would drain others.

That’s interesting. Players of all stripes and sports will swear blind that they don’t listen to the debates that fill our pages and airwaves. They talk about life inside the ‘bubble’ instead and yet here they are in Ireland camp embracing all that outside ‘noise’ and positively profiting from it.

“We hear everything, you know? We see everything,” said Stockdale when asked about the suggestions that his defensive game has not been always up to scratch in the past. “It’s just one of those things. If you have a bad defensive day then people say you can’t defend.

“You have a bad attacking game and people say you’re not ruthless in attack. That’s just part of sport. I kind of liked it whenever people slagged me off because then I get to prove them wrong. That’s kind of my mantra. Proving wrong and proving right is what I try to live by.”

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