Every November series carries a game fraught with danger or opportunity, depending on your state of mind.
After the heroics of last week against South Africa, yesterday’s game against Georgia was always more suited to players looking to prove something to head coach Joe Schmidt.
With the vast majority of Ireland’s certain starters against Australia safely ensconced in the stand, this was a big chance for those looking to make a case for inclusion in Schmidt’s World Cup squad, with opportunities for further experimentation becoming thin on the ground.
Next year’s global tournament opens with contests against Canada and Romania. That affords Schmidt the chance of giving the vast majority of his squad game time before the key Pool D games against Italy and France.
In that context, Georgia offered the ideal trial run and Schmidt was only too happy to avail. At the conclusion, three players had sampled international rugby for the first time, with Dave Foley and Dominic Ryan starting and Munster’s recent signing Robin Copeland rewarded for his timely decision to return home after a number of productive seasons with the Cardiff Blues.
Coming into this game, Schmidt described a good day at the office as “a solid set piece” sure in the knowledge that the Georgians would be ultra-competitive at the scrum and lineout. Overall I think he can be reasonably pleased on that front. Last week we saw Ireland adopt the non-physical approach by not engaging with the Springbok lineout maul as a means of negating one of their key elements. That would be heresy to the Georgians who thrive on physical confrontation. They concentrated their efforts on competing on the ground as a means of countering Ireland’s much vaunted maul.
On three occasions in the opening half, new Irish captain Eoin Reddan refused the option of kicking at goal to put the ball into the corner for Ireland to rumble. Each time the power and bulk of the visitors forced Ireland into retreat.
It is inevitable in games such as this that players on the periphery will try too hard to state their case and that is exactly what happened in the opening half. With Georgia displaying far more structure and organisation in defence than anticipated, Ireland found extreme difficulty in breaching their try line.
As always, the best form of defence is attack and that is exactly what Georgia did at the breakdown. With Ireland looking to place minimal numbers into the contact area — a dangerous ploy against a team as physically powerful as this outfit — Ireland paid a high price with their inability to generate the type of quick ball that created so much difficulty for South Africa last week.
It was left to Reddan to lift the tempo in the opening period with his trademark tap and go managing to generate line breaks in broken play. Georgia’s scramble defence somehow managed to keep their line intact. It was a significant achievement to keep Ireland try-less in that opening period.
Unfortunately Georgia’s efforts were supplemented by the concession of too many penalties close to their line, and it was inevitable that referee JP Doyle would end up flashing a yellow card.
That it happened right on the stroke of half-time, with scrum half Giorge Begadze the victim, gave Ireland the chance to use the break to clarify the best course of action in order to maximise their numerical advantage.
Schmidt will be pleased that for the second week in a row, Ireland racked up 10 points when the opposition were a man down. When their No 8 Dimitri Basilaia followed Begadze into the bin entering the final quarter, Ireland were even more ruthless putting a further 19 points on the board.
Schmidt also used the break to address Ireland’s issues at the breakdown where Georgia had generated five turnovers before the break. Ireland managed none.
Tries by Dave Kilcoyne and Richardt Strauss lifted the pressure and, at last, Ireland found their fluidity. A key figure in this was Ian Madigan who always appears to have time on the ball. He invites the opposition to smash him but somehow manages to dance around them and create a line break.
He has been criticised in the past for taking first option on too many occasions while some question his game management. It doesn’t help however that he has been continuously shifted around the Leinster back line, the first port of call to cover a gap created by an injury to others in a variety of positions.
What we know about Madigan is that he is a quality footballer, has great balance, is an outstanding goal kicker and will only improve if given a concerted run of games in one position. With Johnny Sexton homeward bound next season, Ireland’s new high performance director David Nucafora has a big decision to make.
If Madigan’s future is as a No 10, he needs to change province. The other option is to play him at inside centre as an additional playmaker outside Sexton. Schmidt may well see that as an option for Ireland also but in either case Madigan needs to be presented with a clear path in order maximise his undoubted talent. He has so much more to offer.
There were other winners too on a day when, despite all the talk about team, players knew they were under audition. Dave Kilcoyne cemented a very solid performance in the tight with one outstanding break and a great line to register Ireland’s opening try.
When the game was competitive and the battle needed to be carried to the Georgians, Dave Foley was Ireland’s standout performer up front. The primary source of possession out of touch, he also carried a huge amount of ball. On this showing, his immediate reward should be a place on the bench against the Wallabies next Saturday.
The entire back row of Tommy O’Donnell, Robbie Diack and Ryan all had their moments carrying and linking well. Felix Jones was rock solid under a plethora of early Garryowens and weighed in with two tries while Stuart Olding and Rodney Ah You also left their mark.
Ireland are now in a great position to finish this series on a high against the Wallabies next Saturday.
Australia were less than impressive in defeat against France on Saturday night but have a habit of reserving their best for trips to Dublin.
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