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Ireland finished their World Cup warm-up schedule on a high with a deserved 19-10 victory over Wales at the Aviva Stadium and now head to Japan in confident mood ahead of their opening game against Scotland on Sunday week.
Crisis? What crisis? Normal service has been resumed, or so it would seem, as Ireland recorded back-to-back victories over Wales for the first time since 2014. They are now officially number one in the world rankings, although anyone who takes that too seriously is in for a rude awakening!
The performance and the result were just what the team and the nation needed after a difficult couple of weeks following the record defeat to England and the fall-out over the leaked final squad selection. While there are still things to work on, both the management and the players deserve huge credit for the way they have bounced back since Twickenham and Irish rugby is in a far better place heading to Japan than we could have dreamed possible just a few short weeks ago.
Have we banished the memory of a poor Six Nations campaign at last? Let’s hope so. The debate surrounding the final 31-man squad selection, particularly the omission of Devin Toner, will continue long after the final ball has been kicked on November 2nd, but at least we have something to be cheerful about for the time being. It feels like it’s been a while…..
Saturday was probably Ireland’s best performance of the year so far. We were accurate and very physical as we squeezed the life out of the Welsh team. It was reminiscent of 2018 when Ireland claimed the Grand Slam, won a series against Australia for the first time since 1979 and beat the All Blacks. Some of our big name players were making their season debuts and looked impressive, particularly Jonathan Sexton and Robbie Henshaw. Keith Earls also looked lively before having to depart the fray early. There is no doubting how important Sexton and Henshaw are to this team.
James Ryan deservedly won man-of-the-match for a stellar display. He was a monster at the breakdown, completing several crucial turnovers. He also steadied the line-out after a shaky start. He shows remarkable maturity for a 23-year-old and brings the confidence and authority of a Paul O’Connell figure to the front eight. He is a captain-in-waiting surely.
Ireland won all the collisions against a Welsh team that prides itself on its physicality, something that will have given Schmidt huge satisfaction and worried Gatland immensely. The recycling was a little slower than it needed to be at times, but I would put that down to the referee turning a blind eye to some errant hands in the ruck.
I often wonder if this babysitting approach to players by officials is the way to go. First the referee tells the opposing player that the ball is lost. Then he warns them to not to attempt to play the ball or interfere with the team or player in possession. By that time, however, the damage has invariably been done and defences have that crucial extra couple of seconds to re-organise themselves.
This is one of the dark arts of the game where, make no mistake about it, players know exactly what they’re doing. Penalising offenders instantly and backing it up with a yellow card for repeat infringements will soon take care of the problem, but officials have to be strong and they need help from their assistants on the sideline. We see too much of this cynical play. It is up to the officials to deal with it as teams that commit these offences time and again without getting penalised are being rewarded with what is potentially a match-winning advantage.
While we’re on the subject of officials and officiating, let’s talk about what is possibly the most important set-piece in the game - the line-out. It’s a proven attacking platform and, unlike the scrum for the most part, also offers an opportunity to turn over possession anywhere on the pitch.
That brings us back to the contentious decision to leave Toner out of the final 31. This is undoubtedly a major gamble on Schmidt’s part as it significantly weakens our options in this key area which other teams will now look to exploit. We saw that in the first half on Saturday as Wales managed to disrupt our throw on several occasions by closing the gap before the ball was delivered. While Saturday’s referee was quick to spot what was going on and took action, other officials may not be so quick off the mark and we could find ourselves coughing up possession at vital times in Japan to quality opposition who will make us pay. Ryan admirably took responsibility for the situation by making a high percentage of the calls on himself, but it remains an area of concern.
There has been plenty of talk in the press about this team having ‘turned a corner’ or ‘timing their run just right’ heading into the World Cup, but it is just talk. We still have plenty to work on, most notably our line-out and some aspects of our defence, and there will be further hard selection calls for Schmidt to make over the course of the tournament.
It’s good to be number one in the world for the first time in our history and it’s worth celebrating. At the very least it afforded us the opportunity to give Schmidt and skipper Rory Best the kind of send-off they deserve after so many years of exemplary service, but let’s keep the champagne on ice for now. Who knows, with a little bit of luck, we might need it at some stage!
By Kieran O’Daly
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