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Dublin: 17 °C Friday 20 September, 2019
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Best performance of 2019 will send Ireland to Japan in good spirits

Joe Schmidt’s men were much more convincing in their 19-10 win over Wales on Saturday.

2019 HASN’T BEEN a great year for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland so far, but the head coach remains convinced that the best is yet to come from his men with their World Cup campaign kicking off in just 12 days’ time.

Ireland depart for Japan on Wednesday and will jet out in good spirits after delivering what was their best performance of 2019 against Wales last weekend in Dublin.

The wins against Scotland and France in this year’s Six Nations shouldn’t be dismissed but this felt more complete from Ireland, even if it was just a warm-up fixture.

rob-kearney-with-jonathan-sextons-son-luca-after-the-game Rob Kearney with Johnny Sexton's son, Luca. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Let’s be clear that there is still plenty of work for Ireland to do between now and their Pool A opener against Scotland in Yokohama on 22 September, while Wales were poor in Dublin, but there was lots to like in Saturday’s 19-10 victory over Warren Gatland’s side.

The Welsh coach dressed it up as unimportant, though he won’t have enjoyed seeing his team – missing some key starters – being physically outmuscled by Ireland.

There were three tries from Ireland – as well as a couple of other close calls – as they brought a more clinical edge to their visits into the opposition 22, grinding and bullying their way over when opportunities arose. This was far more like the Ireland of 2018.

That said, we simply don’t know yet if Ireland’s attacking palate is sufficient to break down the very best teams at the World Cup. They may not be able to bully everyone and we still await to see if the hard work on their phase play this summer bears fruit, though the signs have been promising. There is also more to come from their set-piece attack.

Ireland’s lineout wobbled early in the game as Wales picked off their opening two throws and denied Schmidt’s men a platform, but the head coach was pleased with how caller James Ryan and co. “problem-solved” their way through the issues. The scrum, on the whole, was excellent at key moments.

There is much for Ireland to get better at, with mixed results from their kicking game as they finally unleashed Conor Murray’s box kick for the first time this season. 

“I thought a couple of his kicks went a bit far but a couple of kicks were spot on,” was Schmidt’s fair assessment.

jonathan-sexton Johnny Sexton made his return at out-half. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Johnny Sexton had a couple of probing grubber kicks in the first half and also a few rusty touches with the boot, though Jack Carty provided some impressive contributions in this area after replacing the returning first-choice out-half.

Sexton was as fiery as ever in contact on a fine first outing of the season, while Robbie Henshaw in the 13 shirt was superb as he made his own first appearance of the campaign – looking extremely sharp and very fit. 

“Robbie was exceptional at the last World Cup,” Schmidt reminded us, while the Ireland boss can’t help but have been pleased with how Bundee Aki linked with his former Connacht team-mate in the midfield.

A slimmed-down and powered-up Aki is looking increasingly like Ireland’s key game-breaker in the backline. See his bust and offload soon before the first Irish try on Saturday and his stunning solo effort in Twickenham as prime examples.

Ireland also possess a man who will be one of the best players at the World Cup in 23-year-old Ryan, who looks to have bulked up slightly. He is a genuine phenomenon and is well on the way to becoming one of the greats. Ryan’s aggression and work-rate in defence is infectious, while his undying fight for inches in every carry is also inspirational to team-mates.

The one element that Ryan needed to add to his game was handling ability but we’ve seen him throw a long-range offload and a wide pass on turnover possession in the past two weekends – he is on course to become a truly complete player. It’s just a shame he won’t have his fellow destroyer, Dan Leavy, alongside him in Japan.

But there were superb performances in the Irish back row on Saturday from CJ Stander – who ended the game as captain – and Josh van der Flier, while Jack Conan added punch in the tackle and worked tirelessly around the pitch. Rhys Ruddock’s impact off the bench was notable too.

“Those people will keep offering – that’s not accidental, that’s character,” said Schmidt. “That’s a willingness to work and an enthusiasm to contribute.”

joe-schmidt-after-the-game Schmidt bid farewell to the Aviva Stadium. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Speaking of impact, the barnstorming Dave Kilcoyne is shaping up to be one of the most devastating back-up players available to any team in Japan, while Andrew Porter and Sean Cronin could add a similarly explosive edge off the Irish bench.

As for the other starters, Rory Best had his best performance of 2019, winning a turnover penalty, throwing accurately, clearing rucks, running good decoy lines and pitching in with some tackles and carries that had a real edge to them.

Scrum-half Murray looked extremely composed in the opposition 22 and delivered some excellent passes, as well as a couple of wobbly ones. Like Sexton, he will get better.

“I was very happy with the halfbacks,” said Schmidt. “I felt that Johnny got a bit of treatment, there was one tackle I felt was a little bit late where he got winded. But Johnny is not going to step back, he’s going to keep putting himself up there.”

Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong were in strong form in the front too, while Rob Kearney was important at 15. 

“Rob knows when to get on the up-swing and I can’t remember too many games where Rob Kearney hasn’t played big for us,” said Schmidt.

With Jean Kleyn having his best game yet for Ireland – while still working on the Schmidt-esque details – and Iain Henderson among the impressive replacements alongside Garry Ringrose, Saturday was a good day for Ireland. 

The major negative was Keith Earls limping off with a knee injury, presumably the same one that has stymied his pre-season. That is a genuine concern but Schmidt and his staff will likely hope to manage him through the World Cup. 

The receptions for the Ireland head coach and Best post-match only added to the momentum this squad will now feel as they prepare to travel to Japan and look to break new ground at a World Cup.

ireland-fans-with-a-rory-best-banner Ireland fans with a banner for Rory Best. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Schmidt again referenced how his team had been “heavy-legged” for that hammering against England, having worked so hard in Portugal, while he also underlined that 2019 has been all about peaking at the right time in Japan.

“We’d won three of the last five Six Nations, we didn’t need another one of those,” said Schmidt.

“We need a semi-final in this big competition coming up. I don’t know if you’ve done too much farming, but if you try to chase the whole herd, all you end up doing is chasing.

“But if you corral things and decide where your priorities are, I think you give yourself a better chance.”

Schmidt still has a few questions to answer and acknowledges that he will need luck on his side, but Ireland head for Japan in decent nick.

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Murray Kinsella

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