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Precious opportunity for Carbery and McGrath shows they're still learning

Joe Schmidt felt his halfbacks played ‘a little bit conservatively’ in the first half in Chicago.

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

THE SHEER LEVEL of control that Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton exert for Ireland means it’s often jarring when they’re not on the pitch.

So it proved at Soldier Field on Saturday, particularly in the first half, as Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery struggled to get a firm handle on the game.

There were scrambled exit attempts from their defensive territory that invited pressure back onto Ireland, while their decision-making and play-calling in phase play attack was underwhelming at times.

Joey Carbery and Luke McGrath after the game Carbery and McGrath started for Ireland in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Being direct with ball in hand is no bad thing, but too often it looked as though Ireland weren’t asking tough enough questions of the Italian defence – fewer of the pullback passes to second-wave attackers and the loop plays we see when Sexton is on the pitch.

Of course, seven-times capped McGrath and Carbery, making just his fourth Test start, are still learning at this level and it will likely prove to be a valuable experience.

“I think the game was slow and it was all sluggish,” said Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt when asked to assess his halfbacks’ performance.

“I think it’s really hard for halves to inject tempo onto the game if the ball is slow and big pileups are happening and they’re physical defensively. 

“A few of [the Italian players] walked past me on the way out, they’re big square-shouldered men and they are hard to break down if it all slows down. So, I thought in the second half they both really picked up the tempo.

“I thought they played really well. If anything, maybe a little bit conservatively in the first half. There were times when they could have tried to open the game up a little bit and we took the more conservative options but those are things that they will look back on and keep learning.

“That’s why they were giving the opportunity. That’s exactly what we want them to do.”

Carbery remains a work in progress at out-half, with his performance including a handful of errors, including kicking the ball into touch on the full in the second half.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt hopes his halfbacks learn from their experience. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He also had a pass intercepted by Giulio Bisegni inside the Italian 22 in the opening half, allowing Conor O’Shea’s side to lift the pressure and come back into the game after a poor start.

“He’ll learn from that decision,” said Schmidt. “The last time we were here in Red Bull Arena [in New Jersey], he got charged down twice but he got a charge down today. He’s a kid that learns well and works hard.

“Certainly that wide pass, it never really looked like it was on. While we had some numbers there I think, we were never going to get the space on the edge. Even if he [Bisegni] didn’t pick the pass off he would have probably hit Jacob Stockdale into touch if he’d gone for the man instead.

“Joey will look back on that and build something else into his game. You know Joey didn’t run today and so I just felt he was trying really hard to bring everyone else into the game and one of the strengths of Joey’s game is bringing himself to the fore.

“So, I hope he gets a bit of confidence from what he did today and mixes that up a little bit.”

Schmidt underlined that this trip to Chicago was about exposing the likes of Carbery to Test match pressure, while he said the shortened training week – just one proper squad training session on Thursday – had been a challenge.

“Then to throw in two new guys and expect it all to go well… it’s still something we expect to happen because if we don’t create that expectation you’re not going to get it, but it takes a bit of time to grow into the game,” said Schmidt.

“This game it was for that reason. It was a chance to evolve Will Addison and Ross Byrne. It was an opportunity to give Tadhg Beirne a start.

Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Dave Kilcoyne Ireland face a much tougher task against Argentina. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I thought Quinn Roux, his work rate was super in the game and he was very physical. Dave Kilcoyne and Finlay Bealham came on and they were very physical, that hit in the middle of the field.

“That’s the sort of thing that you’re looking for. Sean Cronin came off the bench and was really dynamic.

“I think those guys coming off the bench made a really positive contribution. It was an opportunity to get them involved and learn a few lessons.”

Ireland flew out of Chicago in two groups on Sunday and now face a quick turnaround upon landing in Ireland on Monday morning.

Argentina are in town ahead of Saturday’s showdown at the Aviva Stadium and will certainly provide a tougher test than Italy did.

“It’s going to be a heck of a game,” said Schmidt. “I really think they are coming fully loaded, coming fully fresh. They have had a great window to prep themselves so from that perspective, I think the full house in the Aviva, I hope they are going to get value for money.

“I think you are going to get two teams going toe-to-toe at a pretty high level.”

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Murray Kinsella

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