Joe Schmidt spoilt for choice ahead of All Blacks revenge mission

Ireland 52 Canada 21: Job done for Ireland’s wannabes against a feisty Canada side and plenty of positives for Joe Schmidt to bank for future campaigns, but the head coach is already bracing for a very different challenge in next Saturday’s rematch with the All Blacks.

Schmidt knows there is a backlash coming from New Zealand having ended their 18-match winning streak nine days ago in Chicago and inflicting Ireland’s first defeat on them in 111 years. It is why he rested 14 of his starters for the Guinness Series opener at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday and entrusted a scratch squad of fit-again warriors back from serious injury, his bench from the previous weekend’s epic 40-29 win and eight new caps to face the Canadians.

Eight tries against tier-two opposition is one thing. It was also a performance that allowed Mark Anscombe’s side to level the game with two converted tries at 14-14 in a poor second quarter for the home side, though there was merit in the manner in which Ireland stuck to their gameplan, weathered the storm and then eased away to a comfortable victory.

What Schmidt must decide is whether those players did enough to warrant a shot at the world champions this weekend. There will be only one enforced change from the starting XV which powered their way to that historic win at Soldier Field, at openside flanker. First try scorer Jordi Murphy suffered a serious knee ligament injury which will keep the back-rower out for several months and Josh van der Flier, the man who replaced him after 24 minutes, put in a big performance, topping the team’s tackle-count having come off the bench.

Should van der Flier start, that in all likelihood means a fight for the back-row replacement spot between those returning big guns Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, who both made convincing returns in the Ireland jersey having not played Test rugby for 13 and nine months respectively.

Munster skipper O’Mahony, who had led Ireland on a successful tour to North America in 2013, made it three wins from three as a Test captain on Saturday, adding another 80 minutes to his comeback from the knee injury he sustained at the World Cup against France.

O’Brien made his pitch with a 68-minute shift and Schmidt was measured in his praise of both back-row heavyweights while also talking up debutant Jack O’Donoghue’s contribution at No.8.

“They did well,” Schmidt said of O’Brien and O’Mahony. “There are a few things I know they’ll look at and try to work on. To be honest, I thought Jack O’Donoghue didn’t look out of place right alongside them. I thought he was super and Dan Leavy was good coming off the bench (for O’Brien), so amongst the four back rowers they all contributed something in slightly different ways.

“I thought Seanie got on a really good ball early in the game and was probably unlucky not to get a reward for it. He carried really strongly. I think he always looked a threat when he was carrying, even when there were numbers in front of him.

“I thought Pete grew into the game and got better and better as the game went on. As I said, I think Jack started well and continued in the same vein. Look, it’s one of those tough things. We’ve lost Jordi Murphy obviously and I know he may have been a bit of a surprise selection but Jordi was super for us in the first 24 minutes and, gee, you can’t fault 13 tackles from Josh van der Flier to be the top tackler and he didn’t play the first 24 minutes of the game.

“He added great value as well, so they are some of the headaches we’ll have and we’ll try to sort our way through.”

There were also solid claims for inclusion in Saturday’s 23-man squad from wing Keith Earls, full-back Tiernan O’Halloran and second row Ultan Dillane, all of whom crossed the line as Ireland made it 13 tries from two Tests. The others came from Luke Marshall, Kieran Marmion, debutant hooker James Tracy and a penalty try with Paddy Jackson kicking six from six conversions, as Ireland let a 14-0 lead slip by conceding an intercept try to DTH van der Merwe and to a 12-man maul finished off by wing Taylor Paris.

Max Evans also got over in the second half, Gordon McGrorie’s conversion briefly narrowing the deficit at 28-21.

Dillane came off the bench against the All Blacks and furthered his cause for a starting spot with a man of the match performance against Canada, while O’Halloran grabbed two tries, his first wonderfully executed from a Finlay Bealham offload in midfield to finish at great pace from 30 metres out. Earls, who missed the Chicago trip through suspension, was a lively presence on the left wing, scoring the opening try against the side he made his debut against in Limerick eight years ago and his experience, versatility and clinical finishing skills may well earn him the replacement outside back berth at Garry Ringrose’s expense. The 21-year-old was unused in that role at Soldier Field though he brought some excitement on his debut at outside centre on Saturday.

As encouraging a glimpse into the future this performance and victory provided, Schmidt is going to need all the experience he can muster when the All Blacks arrive with vengeance in their hearts.

IRELAND:

T O’Halloran; C Gilroy (N Adeolokun, 67), G Ringrose, L Marshall, K Earls; P Jackson (J Carbery, 68), K Marmion (L McGrath, 67); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 57), S Cronin (J Tracy, 60), F Bealham (J Ryan, 47); U Dillane (D Ryan, 72), B Holland; P O’Mahony – captain, S O’Brien (D Leavy, 68), J O’Donoghue.

CANADA:

M Evans; DTH van der Merwe, C Trainor, C Hearn (N Blevins,79), T Paris; C Braid, G McRorie (P Mack, 70); D Sears -Duru (R Brouwer, 70), R Barkwill (E Howard, 62-67 & 75), J Ilnicki (M Tierney, 78); B Beukeboom, E Olmstead; K Baillie, L Rumball (M Heaton, 67), A Carpenter – captain (A Cejvanovic, 45).

Replacement not used:

P Parfrey.

Referee:

Marius Van Der Westhuizen (South Africa).


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