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A fitting send-off but Ireland hope for World Cup lift-off after Wales win

Joe Schmidt’s men will board the flight to Japan with renewed confidence.

THIS FELT AND looked much more like it. Not perfect by any means, but better. Much better.

The serious business remains a fortnight away, yet it was important for Ireland to head to Japan on the back of an improved performance and a restorative victory.

rory-best-leaves-the-field-after-the-game Rory Best is given a send-off by his team-mates. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In ensuring both Joe Schmidt and Rory Best were given a fitting Aviva Stadium send-off, Ireland got that and more on Saturday afternoon, as they produced their most efficient and complete performance of the warm-up series and, with a nine-point win over Wales, moved top of the world rankings for the first time. That’ll do quite nicely. 

A physically dominant display, a strong defensive effort, three tries, the half-backs playing with precision and tempo, a sharp midfield pairing and a powerful pack — this was Ireland of 2018 vintage as they also showed a degree of variation in their attacking game.

Whatever your thoughts on the legitimacy of the system, the other obvious boon is Ireland’s rise to the summit of the world rankings as they prepare to board the flight to Japan this coming Wednesday.

Schmidt was, naturally, quick to downplay the significance of the status, and rightly so, but there was a real feel-good factor at a virtually sold-out Aviva yesterday, as the head coach and Best were given rousing ovations on the pitch at full-time.

In many ways, it was an ideal afternoon for Ireland. There were a number of standout individual performances — namely James Ryan, CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki — while the proximity of that Scotland showdown in Yokohama meant it was imperative Schmidt’s side built cohesion, continuity and momentum here. 

“We’ve got a performance we can be proud of,” Schmidt said post-match. “For the first quarter of the game, we couldn’t hold onto the ball. I think we made 40 tackles as opposed to them having made six in the early part of the game.

“I thought we did a really good job defensively and we built our way into the game and felt we dominated the last quarter. It wasn’t necessarily pretty to watch but it’s nice to get that result.”

After the debacle in Twickenham, Ireland’s defensive effort was much sharper against the Grand Slam winners and that augurs well for what is to come, while it was encouraging to see Best and the forwards problem-solve their way through a couple of early lineout wobbles.

“The lads last week put a bit of a marker down as to where we expect the physicality to be and where we expect that collective to be and we knew we need to improve and take another step,” Best continued.

“I think that was another step today in terms of those aspects of the game. Those are the aspects that we pride ourselves on and certainly in Twickenham and bits of the Six Nations that we didn’t feel as players we were good enough in.

“We know we have a lot more in us and we know we are going to have to produce a lot more but I think in terms of steps in the right direction, I think that is a performance we can be happy with and get on the plane on Wednesday with a bit of confidence.

“No doubt we will look back at the mistakes we made and as always we will try and get better.” 

joe-schmidt-after-the-game A final farewell: Schmidt at full-time. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland showed a clinical edge in the red-zone after absorbing swathes of Welsh possession and territory to hit the front through Rob Kearney, who scored his first Test try since the last World Cup.

CJ Stander’s monstrous carry provided quick-ball for Conor Murray to flash it left for Johnny Sexton, who again left his ribs exposed but in holding on for that split-second, timed the pass for Kearney to crash over perfectly.

While Murray and Sexton crucially revived their half-back understanding, the form of Kearney in the backfield is outstanding. Heading to his third World Cup, the Leinster fullback looks fit, sharp and quick over the ground, no more so than when he covered acres of grass to prevent George North a certain try early on.

And then there is the midfield pairing of Aki and Henshaw, who again demonstrated superb chemistry in consistently offloading to each other or adding power and guile to Ireland’s attack.

In the pack, there were big shifts from man-of-the-match Ryan — when is he not outstanding? — Josh van der Flier, Stander and Jean Kleyn, while the bench made another big impact in the second half.

On Kleyn’s performance in the second row, Schmidt said: “Yeah, solid, not spectacular, making tackles, hitting good, solid tackles. He’s a good man for us in the engine room.

“And I think James Ryan is James Ryan really, he just keeps setting a bar for himself and then give it a jump a little bit higher.

I thought Iain Henderson added value and there’s Tadhg Beirne too, so it’s going to be a good contest for those spots. And they are four quite different profiles of second row.

“So it allows us a little bit of flexibility in how we change up the game, during a game or from game to game.”

Kleyn was hard-working and made eight tackles, but perhaps more is required to justify his controversial selection over Devin Toner.

Schmidt added: “He’s a big man. And I think across the board there was a real work-ethic out there today. It wasn’t flash but it was functional.

And sometimes when you’re building towards something you want functional. We all want to get better, Besty wants to get better and he’s had at least 118 goes at getting better.

“Jean Kleyn hasn’t had that many opportunities but we’re just trying to build that profile, just to give him more, you never want to be comfortable, but just to get him more confidence that he can offer himself as a ball carrier and he can be getting off the line, and adding value defensively.

“And I think he does. Right from the first game against Italy, he made a couple of really big tackles in the first 15 minutes. He hits big men back.

“So when your big men are doing that it gives you an advantage line and a bit of confidence in the guys who will trade forward with them.”

And now the serious business begins. See you in Japan.  

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Ryan Bailey

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