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Dublin: 17 °C Friday 20 September, 2019
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10 seconds that show why Rob Kearney is so important to Schmidt's Ireland

The 33-year-old fullback looks to be in excellent physical condition ahead of the World Cup.

A RUSTY 22-METRE restart from Johnny Sexton flies over the touchline on the full and hands Wales a prime attacking opportunity early on – a midfield scrum on the Irish 22.

Warren Gatland’s side very nearly manufacture a delightful opening try, but Ireland fullback Rob Kearney swoops in to rescue the situation with an act that is every bit as important as the five-pointer he scores himself almost 17 minutes later.

As we can see below, Wales stack four of their backs to the left of the scrum, suggesting that they will attack to that side of the set-piece.

Set-Up

Kearney [white above] sets up on that side of the scrum too, preparing to be the final defender sweeping out to the touchline should Wales move the ball wide to their left.

Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray has to worry about both sides of the scrum here, and we can see below how he initially edges back to his left after opposite number Tomos Williams feeds the ball into the scrum.

However, Williams then shifts away to the left of the Welsh scrum, readying himself to receive the ball from number eight Ross Moriarty from the base.

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Murray reacts by racing to get off the scrum himself [white below], with openside flanker Josh van der Flier doing the same [red] – both Irishmen well aware of how England did so much damage to them at Twickenham three weekends ago with eight-nine plays from scrums.

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As indicated in yellow above, Kearney has also reacted by initially shifting to his right, working to cover a possible kick behind or to close the gate out wide if Wales move the ball through the hands.

However, after receiving from Moriarty, Williams intelligently turns back and whips his pass to the right of the Welsh scrum [white below].

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Even before the pass has left Williams’ hands, though, Kearney is already reacting to the new threat, bursting back to his left [yellow].

This is an elite level of concentration and reaction time from Kearney, with every single split second crucial. The Ireland fullback also demonstrates sharp acceleration to get moving in the opposite direction after initially stepping to his right.

With blindside flanker CJ Stander and number eight Jack Conan still having their heads down scrummaging, Robbie Henshaw – who defended superbly on Saturday – has to react sharply here to deal with Leigh Halfpenny.

There is notable space either side of Henshaw as he adjusts to the changing picture, but he importantly gets good linespeed and closes down Halfpenny [blue below] to force him into a decision.

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Meanwhile, Keith Earls is closing up on George North [white] and that obviously leaves space in behind – space that Wales had hoped would appear.

Halfpenny drops the ball onto his right foot for a grubber kick and the pressure from Henshaw here is crucial as it means Halfpenny has a little less time to roll his kick further out towards the touchline.

Still, the kick gives North a fine chance to burst beyond Earls and gather to score – only for Kearney to make a superb intervention after working extremely hard to sweep across.

RK

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The impressive reaction time Kearney demonstrates here is important, but the pace he covers the ground at is also worth underlining.

Kearney recorded the fastest sprinting times of his career last season and, even at 33, is clearly no slouch.

RK1

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It’s a vital contribution from Kearney to deny North the kind of early try that can set the tone for the entire game.

We’ve seen Ireland concede a damaging score to an intelligent opposition grubber kick from a set-piece play already this year – with England’s Elliot Daly rolling one behind to draw an error from Jacob Stockdale in the Six Nations.

Of course, Kearney wasn’t in the Ireland team that day, with Henshaw instead enduring a tough day after being a surprise selection in the 15 shirt. 

Certainly, Henshaw’s reaction and covering work could have been better in that instance when Daly teed up a try for himself, but the Leinster man is literal years behind Kearney in terms of fullback experience.

The 33-year-old’s backfield skills can often go underappreciated in an era where many supporters and pundits weigh individual attacking qualities as more important. 

rob-kearney-scores-a-try-despite-leigh-halfpenny Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Kearney did contribute in that sense against Wales, of course, as he beat the usually reliable Jonathan Davies on the outside before finishing through Halfpenny for his try.

Otherwise, Kearney had a strong outing for Ireland in Dublin, winning his first aerial contest as Henshaw and Jordan Larmour did a good job escorting chasing Welsh players under a Rhys Patchell garryowen.

Having convincingly claimed a Williams box kick in the 26th minute, poor escorting by Ireland in the 33rd minute allowed both Dan Biggar and North to get into the air against Kearney under another  Williams box and the Welsh pair were able to retrieve possession.

The Ireland fullback won back a hanging Jack Carty garryowen in the 73rd minute that could have resulted in an Irish try, only for Larmour to delay his then-wayward pass to the waiting Garry Ringrose out on the left.

Kearney was perhaps lucky to get away with a high tackle on North in the first half – having also done so against England in Twickenham – but this was an excellent outing overall.

Save

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He showed superb reactions and pace once again to help prevent Biggar from scoring on his intercept of a Sexton pass in the instance above.

Below, we can see the starting positions of Kearney [white], Henshaw [yellow], Earls [blue], and Murray [red] as Biggar intercepts.

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All four Irishmen work extremely hard to get back – captain Rory Best also puts the head down – and Earls’ role is important.

The Munster wing gets a nudge from Hadleigh Parkes as he tracks back but he dives to throw a tap tackle attempt at Biggar, just breaking the out-half’s stride at a key moment and giving Henshaw an extra split second to wrap Biggar up. 

Kearney, having made up lots of ground at pace, then sweeps in to ensure Biggar can’t ground the ball at the second time of asking.

While Ireland did concede from the subsequent five-metre scrum, this kind of work-rate underpinned an outstanding collective defensive effort from Schmidt’s side.

Kearney looked in excellent condition for Ireland on Saturday and his backfield know-how is likely to be crucial at the World Cup, where kicking is set to play a huge role. 

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Murray Kinsella

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