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Dublin: 15 °C Sunday 21 October, 2018

Valuable experience, but back to the waiting game for Ireland's up-and-comers

The Pro14 returns this week and many of the team who defeated Fiji will find themselves back in provincial colours.

Updated at 08.45

IT’S USUALLY THE same when the end of an international window comes into view, you don’t want it to end.

We want more of the island’s best combining against the world and we want more of the crop just below those very best showing they have every intention of forcing their way up a few rungs.

Chris Farrell, Jale Vatubua and Devin Toner Chris Farrell and Devin Toner get to grips with Nemani Nadolo. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Unfortunately, the wonderful is rare and many of the men who lined out in green on Saturday will be back training with their provinces by Thursday, with only international camps rather than caps to aim for until the Six Nations returns in February.

“Yeah, look, that’s a frustration for us. That’s the nature of Test rugby, you play in these very brief windows, then you have to wait and by the time our next competition comes up, the personnel could be different again,” said Joe Schmidt digging into the depth chart for Saturday’s narrow win over Fiji.

Against Argentina next week, the leading lights of Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Rory Best and Sean O’Brien will return to the front line and again assert their dominance in their respective areas. The fruit of Schmidt’s effort to instil Test experience in as many up-and-comers as possible will come when an injury (or, less likely, a serious dip in form) necessitates a promotion. And the way Fiji roared back from 17 – 3 to make Ireland sweat and make the crowd abandon a Mexican Wave so they could watch the game, that experience doubled in value.

Part of what we wanted to do tonight was to keep growing that base so that if we have to adapt, the adaptation wasn’t going to be as extreme as it possibly could have been.”

Unfortunately for Joey Carbery, his chances to adapt to out-half will be curtailed by injury as well as a lack of opportunity. Schmidt and Leinster head coach Leo Cullen alike are pretty consistent in saying they would like to get Carbery playing 10 more often, but he has been needed at fullback. So, carrying a fractured forearm into December, he looks set to enter 2018 with about 70 match minutes as an out-half. Far from ideal.

“He’s been a bit unlucky for us as well to be honest. We felt that he would have got some great time in Japan, and he got that injury. He would have come off the bench again next week, but he’s got another injury. So it’s just proving elusive to us at the moment.

“Now you don’t have to be playing all the time to improve your goal-kicking and that’s the best thing about Joey. What you don’t see is him working really hard on his game behind the scenes and that’s why we’ve kept a lot of confidence in his ability to contribute. It’s an imperfect world and it’s been made more frustrating by the injuries he’s picked up and it is really unfortunate for Joey. He’s really disappointed to have picked that injury up tonight.”

“You’ve just got to back yourself when you get him in that you can get him into the best mindset and have him understanding as much about the position he plays as possible. That’s what we’ll build toward.”

Needless to say, Carbery isn’t the only player who is asked to operate in a different role with his province than at national level. Andrew Conway has worked incredibly hard to  mark himself as the primary challenger to Rob Kearney’s long dominance of Ireland’s fullback berth. And while Simon Zebo and Tiernan O’Halloran watched on far from the inner circle, Conway thrived with the responsibility given to him.

Andrew Conway after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

However, even that wasn’t necessarily how the plan would have unfolded in a perfect world for Schmidt. Because having added or re-added Bundee Aki, Chris Farrell and Stu McCloskey to his midfield stocks with Garry Ringrose to come back in contention, the Kiwi would like to reacquaint Robbie Henshaw with fullback to bolster those options behind Kearney.

“To be honest we wanted to give Robbie (Henshaw) a bit of an opportunity at fullback in the last 15 minutes but Andrew Conway was going so well, and we just felt that we just needed to get (Henshaw) into the middle of our defensive line because Robbie is such an influential player for us, whereas out the back he doesn’t have that same ability to influence other players.”

Levani Botia attempts to block Robbie Henshaw Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

All in all though, Henry Seniloli’s try from a spark of utter brilliance from Nemani Nadolo helped to bring Ireland towards some long-term positives. Because more often than not, Ireland don’t win Test matches by playing free-flowing Fijian rugby and racking up 30-point wins. This level should be tense and pressurised.

“In a way, that try was really good for us. We saw guys tightening up, the amount of turnovers we conceded in that first half — we conceded 11, they conceded 10 — it was a turnover-a-thon, and that’s always dangerous. Of the two teams, who’s more dangerous when it becomes a free for all? I think with the athletes and experience they have, they’d be a real risk for us.”

Jack Conan celebrates scoring a try Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Risk averted, job done. Alas, the international window is now closed for all but 23 in Ireland’s ranks.

“They were pretty excited about the opportunity, they recognise they were given a huge responsibility, they are playing a huge Test at home in an Ireland jersey – they are Ireland. Therefore, they knew it was a big responsibility, but they also appreciated the opportunity that they got and they will feel, it’s a first opportunity that they want to grow into others.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

Fiji take heart from pushing Ireland all the way but rue a missed opportunity

‘We took some chances tonight’: Schmidt relieved to see experimental side find a way to win

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Sean Farrell

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