New week. New team. This evening’s Guinness Series opener against Canada at Aviva Stadium may have all the hallmarks of the calm following a storm given the history that was made in Chicago seven days ago, but then again this is an Ireland squad coached by Joe Schmidt.
Second-tier opposition it may well be visiting Dublin, but the keenest mind in world rugby will demand a performance from his much-changed XV every bit as accurate and intense as the one that ran in five tries past All Blacks at Soldier Field, and preferably one that makes fewer mistakes.
For while the rest of us were basking in the reflected glory of that epic 40-29 victory and wallowing in the feat of turning over the best team in the history of the sport for the first time in 111 years, Schmidt was pondering the “what ifs” of Ireland’s performance and reflecting on the chances Steve Hansen’s side missed that would could have easily made it a 29th consecutive failure since 1905 to beat a New Zealand team.
“Being honest, last week, if you look at that patch that we had from the 50th to the 70th minutes (when Ireland conceded three tries and saw their lead cut from 22 to four points), I can clearly recall two opportunities for the All Blacks where it was partly pressure from us, but partly the fact they put the ball down,” Schmidt said.
“If they hadn’t, the result could have swung the other way.”
That the result did not swing the wrong way is neither here nor there, it is another lesson for his players to learn and develop from.
The heroes of last week have for the most part been given the weekend off to refresh ahead of their rematch with New Zealand in Dublin next Saturday but Schmidt will still expect his questions to be answered from the new-look squad he sends out against the Canadians.
With a starting XV backboned by most of the bench who closed out last Saturday’s famous victory and boosted by the recalled experience of the likes of Keith Earls and Paddy Jackson as well as the fully fit back rowers Peter O’Mahony, who captains, and Sean O’Brien, Schmidt will see how starting debutants Garry Ringrose, Jack O’Donoghue and Billy Holland and potential first caps James Tracy, John Ryan, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath and Niyi Adeolokun meet the challenges of Test rugby.
Asked what he was looking for from this game against a side now under the guidance of former Ulster boss Mark Anscombe but which lost 50-7 to Ireland in the opening pool game of the 2015 World Cup, Schmidt replied: “Performance-wise, are we really solid at set-piece? Can the changes in the pack deliver a really solid scrum and give us a platform we need, because with that you can do things. And I think that was evident (last) Saturday.
“Can we get some line-out pressure on them and can we make sure we look after our own? You only have to look at the scoring in the second-half when we got three of theirs, and they got two of ours. In the first-half, the scoring was 25-8 in our favour. In the second-half in the period they got those two line-outs, one of the line-out steals they scored straight off, after a few phases.
“So how good will our set-piece be, with these guys coming in, and not having had a lot of time to get fairly comfortable with each other? How effective can we be defensively, and making sure that we don’t give them too much time and space to play, because that’s something that was probably evident last week? When they did get some time at all, they looked really dangerous.”
Schmidt, as you would expect, knows his opposition inside out and he believes in players such as captain and No.8 Aaron Carpenter, lock Evan Olmstead and hooker Ray Barkwill they have robust ball carriers complementing speed merchants out wide Taylor Paris of Agen and Scarlets flyer DTH van der Merwe.
“So it will be interesting to see how we make sure those guys are kept under control,” he added.
“And then finally, can we put together a few phases of play that put them under real pressure and help create opportunities for us?
“Can we finish those? Can we make sure that we accumulate points when we get those opportunities?”
The odds may be stacked heavily in Ireland’s favour and that will fuel Canada’s desire just as it did the underdogs last week in Chicago. Still, everything points to Irish dominance, and Schmidt will hope his players can offer more than simply victory.
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