FORM IN SUMMER tours is not necessarily the best barometer of future success, but when Joe Schmidt took over we all asked for consistency from this Ireland team.
So, now that the Six Nations sets the bar high, every player must aim to feed off and sustain that winning feeling.
After winning the 2009 Grand Slam, Ireland’s non-Lions went to win the Churchill Cup with Ireland A. There is no trophy on offer this time around, seven wins from Schmidt’s opening 10 games in charge would sound and feel a whole lot better than five and five.
Despite some big name withdrawals in the squad, only Cian Healy will be missing from the recognised first-choice tight five.
Setting a solid platform up front is essential in any international, but particularly against this Argentina. Though the Pumas appear to be a less fearsome prospect than they hoped to become after two years in the Rugby Championship, anything less than full throttle from the front five would see Ireland drawn into a dogfight of a game.
With John Plumtree set to leave the setup for the number two role with the Wellington Hurricanes, there are only more lessons to be reinforced than learned about the pack on this tour. But if they can display the same level of set-piece organisation that took the Six Nations by storm, then they will be making the job a more tempting one for any forwards coach currently at a loose end.
Serious midfield contenders
Previous summer tours without Brian O’Driscoll have always featured a centre looking slightly uneasy. As if he were only there to keep the jersey warm until the record caps holder returned.
This time, it ought to be different. And, as the only recognised 13 on tour, Darren Cave has the best possible chance of staking his claim for the November internationals and beyond before Robbie Henshaw or Jared Payne are given a look in.
However, with Gordon D’Arcy also missing this tour and unlikely to play beyond next year’s World Cup we have a pivotal component of the attacking structure to rethink.
There are more inside centre options for Schmidt to choose from with Noel Reid the latest edition to join Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden and Luke Marshall. The latter is the most obvious choice for both the long and short term and the centre who can dovetail best with him will be difficult to displace.
Everything was rosy in the Irish rugby garden after trouncing Italy and winning in Paris for the first time since Drico was a lad… mostly.
Prior to the win over the Azzuri, Ireland were incredibly impressive, but rarely thrilling. Schmidt seemed to be building towards success within a structure, starting with an enormous focus on line-out and breakdown.
Hopefully, the squad can have enough time together in South America to devote more on-pitch minutes to work on the attacking structures and, with no Championship on the line, take a few more risks in possession in order to puncture holes in the defence.
There are six uncapped players among Schmidt’s 29-man squad and you would expect at least five of them to get game time at some point over the next 10 days.
Kieran Marmion is surely the most cap-worthy of the half dozen. The Connacht scrum-half is approaching Jamie Heaslip levels of durability and has made big strides to correct some areas of his game which Schmidt has asked him to work on.
As Robbie Diack was brought because of his ability to cover lock as well as blindside, he’s nailed on to win a cap as is Rodney Ah You (one of only two tighthead props).
The crucial thing for each of these players is that they soak up every morsel of information that comes their way in international camp. And when their chance on the field does come, they must show the coach they are willing to do things the Schmidt way.
That applies as much to Munster’s mercurial winger as it does to the players without a cap to their name.
It should pain Irish rugby fans to see Simon Zebo left out of international squads. It just leaves us asking ‘why?’ Without ever getting a solid answer.
The Corkman has too much ability to be left off the big stage for long. If Schmidt wants that indefinable star quality in hi arsenal, he is far better off trying to develop and iron out any faults in the winger’s game within the camp than by leaving him to stew in UL.
Last June’s humdrum trip the US and Canada was pretty much acceptable for a team between coaches and with Tests running parallel to a Lions tour. But in an upbeat camp with medals to their name and with hostile, beatable opposition coming down the tracks, there can be no excuse for easing off the pedal in Argentina.
Schmidt teams have characterised themselves with an ability to ruthlessly run up the score, punishing opponents for falling off tackles and losing concentration in defence. The Six Nations champions should be ending the season with a flurry, not by running out of steam.