Six Nations and RWC loom large as Schmidt sees flexibility and confidence built in November

Ross Byrne has complicated the tussle for the back-up 10 slot and that suits the head coach just fine.

Sean Farrell reports from the Aviva Stadium

EIGHT TRIES, HALF a century on the board and even a bit of adversity to cope with thanks to American physicality, but Ireland’s 57-14 win last night was cause for as many questions as answers.

For one, the dilemma behind Jonathan Sexton at out-half didn’t get sorted out as neatly as some may have hoped. But Joe Schmidt was quite content to have Ross Byrne muddying the waters.

Iain Henderson, Niall Scannell and Joey Carbery celebrate after the game Henderson and Niall Scannell celebrate with Carbery post-match. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Joey Carbery wore the 10 jersey for the closing November Test against the Eagles, but  his old Leinster team-mate Ross Byrne was introduced midway through the first-half to give him a friendly bump to fullback.

With his selection of the Athy man since Chicago in 2016, Schmidt has made it clear that Carbery is the leading contender for the playmaker role behind Sexton. However, injuries have curtailed his involvement in previous starting opportunities – notably against Fiji and the USA last year – and last night was Carbery’s fifth time taking a starter’s role with Ireland.

He held the reins at out-half for just 27 minutes before Byrne arrived to give that familiar assured touch that belies his 23 years, leaving Munster’s new recruit to find his learnings elsewhere on the field.

Asked if it was a missed opportunity to further develop Carbery as a Test 10 , Schmidt pointed to next year’s Rugby World Cup and the need for a broad focus.

“Not really. One of the things we’re looking for, we know we have to play a tournament this time next year and we need guys to be able to be flexible,” says the head coach.

It’s also 60 minutes that Ross got to play.  We’ve got to be three or four deep in every position, so if it’s not Joey getting the time, at least it’s Ross getting the time. And Joey’s not losing completely the time we might need him to play.”

“To have flexibility and give guys a bit of confidence playing in that position, I don’t think that’s a missed opportunity. It’s nice for (Carbery) to get that time at 10, but he is getting a bit of a rhythm in playing 10 anyway.”

Carbery’s move to Munster has been a success in the early portion of the season and his superb attacking abilities are already rounding out as he takes on more traditional responsibilities of an out-half. With Conor Murray due back in red this weekend, the pair also have the opportunity to build a partnership that can be replicated for club and country. Yet there is just no denying Byrne’s quality and his almost instant comfort at each level he steps up to.

“It”s pretty tough on Ross,” adds Schmidt, “he wants to actually get in the driver’s seat and get in at the start of a game. He wasn’t too far from the start when he got on.

“I’d stick to ‘glass half-full’ and say it was pretty good for both of them.”

Out-half is one of the few positions on this all-conquering Ireland team where there is limited competition for the top spot. Rory Best is being pushed harder and harder at hooker, Cian Healy and Jack McGrath have traded places many times over the years, the pack’s back five is better-stocked than ever before and the centre selections will be intriguing throughout the Six Nations.

And while Murray’s quality will make him a natural starter on his return from injury, Schmidt hailed the work of Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney to bring Ireland through this month’s clean sweep despite the big-name absence.

Ross Byrne and Stuart McCloskey celebrate after the game Ross Byrne and Stuart McCloskey celebrate after combining for a second half try. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Over the past month, great strides have come from Jordan Larmour, Josh van der Flier, Tadhg Beirne, Marmion, Will Addison and last night’s hat-trick scorer Andrew Conway to either consolidate or move up the depth chart. But priceless game-time has also been experienced by the many who must count themselves among a strong fringe to this Ireland team.

“There probably are,” nods Schmidt when asked if there are positions he does not feel well covered in.

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“But any time we challenge someone to fill in – playing this series without Conor, for example, the guys who might not be rated in the same realm as Conor, but the little incremental additional confidence they get out of playing at this level… that’s great building for them.

Are we building? Are you ever a finished product? I don’t think you are.

“You’re thinking it would be nice to have this and that, but also: ‘we’ve got a bit of that, a bit more here’. And we’ll just keep going in that direction.”

All that talk of building and moving forward – plus perhaps the knowledge of his finite time remaining in the job – led Schmidt to cast an eye forward to the next fixture he would coach. It’s a big one too.

The 10 weeks between now and 2 February’s Six Nations-shaping clash at home to England will come around fast. A ‘wow’ escaped Schmidt’s lips when he introduced the clash to the conversation. His window for experimentation is already over.

“That’s the sort of pressure-cooker that is going to require the very best performance we can put out. That’s another building block. And if we’re missing three or four guys, well it’s a building block plus an opportunity.

“There were some opportunities taken tonight.”

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Sean Farrell

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