Sometimes being given more questions than answers from an exercise can be a good thing.
Certainly if you are Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, preparing to begin the process of narrowing his squad from 46 to around 37 this week, having a raft of players raise their hand and scream ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ is a lot more preferable than his opposite number Warren Gatland’s position after a lacklustre and often sloppy Wales performance under the Millennium Stadium roof.
Instead of having decisions made easier this week ahead of the first cut, Schmidt’s task in selecting a final 31-man squad for next month’s World Cup has become a lot more difficult after an encouraging opening to the pre-tournament warm-up campaign. Five Test-match tries in Cardiff are not to be sniffed at in any month of the year, nor a dominant set-piece performance and that it was done in front of a capacity crowd of 74,500 underlined that this was no mere warm-up. Nor too the fact that winning this proper Test match, albeit played out between two largely second-string teams, has elevated Ireland to second in the World Rugby rankings.
It all makes for a heady start to preparations, save for the concerns arising from Tommy O’Donnell’s serious-looking hip injury late on in the game, the severity of which is expected to be revealed today.
As Schmidt sits down to ponder his selection for the next two games, at home, to Scotland this Saturday and Wales on August 29, he will do so in the knowledge he has already seen some fringe players stand up and make a strong case for further consideration.
Keith Earls is certainly at the forefront of that list, the returning back fitting seamlessly into midfield and grabbing his chance with a breakaway first-half try and some dazzling footwork, as well as some hard graft in defence.
And while Schmidt will not have spared any blushes in his review of a game that also saw three tries conceded and Ireland, having raced into a 25-0 lead after 33 minutes, lose their way somewhat midway through the second half, he will have picked out candidates who have made the selection process a little cloudier.
“People change my mind when I’ve had a really good look the footage,” Schmidt said. “I get an impression of how guys are going and obviously with Tommy (O’Donnell), I don’t know how accurate it is but I’d say he made 14, 15 tackles, and four or maybe five turnovers. I do know a couple of penalties went against him when he did start to fatigue.
“Those sorts of guys I have an impression of and then I go back and I have a look and usually either have a discussion with them or some of the other coaches who discuss it with them.
“I think there was a few guys who confirmed to me they are hoping to make my decisions difficult and that is exactly what you want.”
Schmidt will also want to keep the Ireland bandwagon rolling over the coming weeks with his team’s performances improving incrementally against the Scots and Welsh before the final dress rehearsal in Twickenham against England on September 5. For having reached number two in the world with a win that came complete with a shiny new Dove Men Trophy, he will want to remain there going into the Pool D campaign, however keen he is to downplay the achievement ahead of the September 19 opener against Canada.
“Ah look, that’s a nice reward after a fairly good day’s effort,” he said of the promotion in the ranks.
“Again, it’s a table, it’s a piece of paper, it’s not something tangible but it’s still a nice feather in the cap for the lads on the back of a good performance.
“There’s some disappointments and hopefully they’re not too bad and we get the opportunity to get them back up and running. I think for us it’s just about building from here. It’s nice to be sharp but we don’t want to peak too soon and we want to make sure we keep getting little gains over the next four to six weeks.”
H Amos; A Cuthbert, T Morgan, S Williams – captain (M Morgan, 56), E Walker; J Hook (G Anscombe, 49), M Phillips (L Williams, 49), N Smith (R Evans, 51), R Hibbard (K Dacey, 51), A Jarvis (S Andrews, 58); J Ball (J King, 58), D Day; R Moriarty, J Tipuric, D Baker (T Faletau, h-t).
R Moriarty 45-55
F Jones; A Trimble (S Zebo, 34), K Earls (I Madigan, 69), D Cave, F McFadden; P Jackson, E Reddan (K Marmion, 69); J McGrath (D Kilcoyne, 52), R Strauss (R Best, 20-26 and 62), M Ross (M Bent, 58); I Henderson (D Tuohy, 49), D Ryan; J Murphy, T O’Donnell, J Heaslip – captain (C Henry, 55).
C Henry 61-71 Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
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