Those of us old enough to remember where we were (and not afraid to disclose how old we are) are keen to tell stories of June 25, 1990 as the Republic of Ireland football team beat Romania.
I was working behind the bar in Gleeson’s of Booterstown and as Dave O’Leary was lining up THAT kick, a kid asked me for a Coke. Let’s just say he never got it.
The celebrations and good feeling all over the country were awesome from that moment. And even then it wasn’t just about the football itself, we were all mad keen to hear the words of Big Jack himself, and also back in the studio there was the trio of RTE pundits in Johnny GIles, Eamonn Dunphy and of course the late, great Bill O’Herlihy.
And we had only reached the quarterfinals!
Even then, although rugby was still amateur and nowhere near as popular on these shores as it is now, Ireland was definitely expected to reach the last eight at the very least.
But now those expectations have reached a whole new level. A level where the national broadcaster can’t even afford the asking price to cover the Rugby World Cup, or at least if they did go for it, they may have to scale back on the lucrative annual cash-cow that is the Six Nations.
All of this meant that RTE rugby’s answer to the soccer punditry triumvirate, namely Tom McGuirk, Brent Pope and Colonel Curmudgeon himself George Hook, were available to do a live assessment of this match at Dtwo Garden, Bar & Nightclub on Harcourt St downtown, and I have to say it was a welcome addition to the whole “watch the match down the pub” experience, and it raised money for Haven, ie George’s worthy Haiti charity, as well to boot.
Still though, as much as the lads tried to play off each other to make for some entertainment for those of us in attendance, there really were only two words on everyone’s lips (even George’s) afterwards…”Job” and “done”.
As far as I was concerned, I would have taken a winning scoreline of 20-19 to Ireland, provided it included 4 tries and crucially, no injuries. So on the proviso that Rob Kearney’s limp is nothing to be overly concerned over, you can bet I’m happy with a 44-10 outcome even if it could have been more.
But given this is meant to be a Monday match writeup I suppose I’d better start providing some actual analysis pretty soon!
First I have to make it clear what lens I used to watch - essentially no different to any other since the warm-ups began back at the beginning of August. If we simply scrutinise the 80 minutes and ignore all else that is going on the rugby world, then yes, there are many ways we can be critical - with all due respect to the Romanians and for all their committed tackling from the off, the scoreline should really have been closer to that which the Wallabies put on Uruguay earlier that day.
Of course we can’t just look at any of these matches like that. Joe Schmidt’s job was never to beat Romania, nor was it to beat Canada. It was to bring a squad of players through a tournament - yes, of course we needed those wins and with maximum pool points as well, but though we have been extremely lucky with regard to our schedule, it’s still up to him to make the most of it.
So while there may well be much “tutting” about the place over the fact that our “Tier 2” opponents each put a try on us, we have to make allowances for the chopping and changing to the starting lineup that had to take place to facilitate the rehab of key players such as Cian Healy (who had a good shift and seems ready). No Irish fan wants to see tries being scored on us, but context has to play a factor.
So what were the key positives on the day at Wembley, apart from the record-breaking crowd? For me the most encouraging sign was in our back three.
“If I’m to have any worries it will be over our back three. It hasn’t been a combination that has worked well together for us at all since the start of August and this trio in particular will know they will need to impress not only individually, but also in their roles as part of a unit.”
As you can see from my preview, I was paying particular attention to positions 11, 14 and 15 on the day. And thankfully, I need not have worried because it was clearly an area that bothered Joe as well. Between them Earls, Bowe and Zebo were pretty much involved in everything good Ireland were doing and even Rob Kearney chipped in with a score off the bench towards the end.
It wasn’t just the two tries each from Earls & Bowe plus the one that might have been from Zebo. And it wasn’t the slick accurate passing that put others in for scores. Nor was it the much improved kick-chasing that kept winning the ball back for us off the boot. It was the way they worked together as a unit - this is what Joe is looking for most of all from those positions and it was something that was very much lacking in previous encounters.
Personally when it comes to future selection, I think his ideal starting back three formation right now is RK-TB-DK. Bowe badly needed a stand-out performance against Romania to remind us all that he was considered “undroppable” back at the beginning of August and with his finishing, catching and carrying I think we may have seen enough to know previous quiet displays were but a glitch.
As for the bench, well as worthy and all as was Keith Earls’ man of the match award, I think Joe will probably go for either Luke or Simon - George Hook said he thinks Joe doesn’t really like Zebo...that made for a great clickbait headline but to be fair, he did qualify by saying he meant as a type of player rather than as a person.
If it were down to me, I might actually go for Zebo at 23, because I believe that jumper is exactly meant for his type of player, namely one who can come off the bench in a tight contest and make something happen. Having said that, Luke isn’t exactly a shrinking violet himself, plus he can cover 13 so I think he could get the nod.
Another area that I was keen on watching was the second row. I thought Devin Toner did exactly what he does best for this Ireland team, ie call the lineouts. The Romanians were targeting this area and although at 6-foot-loads he would always be the more obvious choice, he used himself as a decoy more often than not and there was great variation in jumpers between Heaslip, Murphy and Ryan.
The Munster lock seemed to have a decent outing but not enough to propel himself up the pecking order. I fear his return from injury may have come too late for this World Cup though if injury befalls anyone above him, we know the role will be in capable hands with him as he has much to offer, not least of which it attitude.
Now - to our centres. I am amazed by some of the analysis I see around the place on this area, though I guess if we all agreed it would be boring.
Jared Payne is only a “concern” for Ireland in the 13 jumper if we remain blinkered by what we perceive to be the role of an outside centre. We simply can’t afford to be. OK, maybe we’d see the position as one for attacking a la Jonathans Davies & Joseph, Conrad Smith, Bastareaud, or even, dare I say it, Robbie Henshaw.
But when Joe was hired to the job it came with a burning question - how to “replace” BOD in time for RWC2015. So in the time since he took up the role in mid-2013, he has no doubt devoted quite a deal of his considerable rugby brain power to finding an answer and it would appear that is Jared Payne. How can it be? We’d say. Not so much as one line break from the chap at Wembley.
Let’s think outside the box here people! Because for me, that’s what Joe has done. You look back on any Jared Payne performance for Ireland this year and you see a hell of a lot more on second watch than the first. He’s not ruled out of attacking moves altogether, but when he is involved, more often than not it’s in the wider channels to either find a man outside him or kick it forward into space.
And once he has done this, unless there’s a kick chase to be done, his remit is to get back ready to cover his defensive channel in case a turnover sees the opposition coming back his way. Against Romania he “only” made the 10 tackles, but still led the team despite being taken off at the 57m mark.
I’m not saying this interpretation of the centre role by Joe Schmidt isn’t a risk, but what I am saying is that Payne seems to be the one best placed to play this way and given it must link to everything else the team is trying to do out there, maybe we should stop looking for a generic 13 and appreciate the big picture more. Or to put it another way, we must find ways to “deal with the Payne”...
Finally, we have Ian Madigan. Again if you’ll allow me to quote myself from my preview…
“I can see Ian Madigan being given license to move the ball around taking opportunities where he sees them...he certainly seems to have come into this tournament in a good vein of form and after all the talk of whether he’ll also be covering 12, 15 or even 9, we can’t rule out the possibility that he could go through the tournament only ever playing out-half.”
I’m pretty sure this display has copper-fastened his role as the backup 10. At the risk of adding to the overkill of pops at the previous Leinster coach, Madigan would seem to have grown more in the out-half role since preseason began this July than he did in the previous two full seasons at the RDS. And the place-kicking has improved as well - a lot of the tries were in the corner yet his radar seemed to be well honed each time.
All of which leaves me with the conclusion that yes, the job was done. Yes, we have an injury worry in Rob Kearney but to be fair the rugby gods have been smiling on us for the most part in this World Cup compared to other nations. So yes, we need to feel good not only about being top of the pool at the halfway stage, but also about our chances going forward.
My matchday 23 to best execute “Schmidtball” in the pool’s crunch matches is as follows…
R Kearney, T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, D Kearney, J Sexton, C Murray
C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, P O’Connell, P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip
S Cronin, J McGrath, N White, I Henderson, C Henry, E Reddan, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald.
Even as I typed that I was torn between the roles of Toner, Henderson and O’Mahony, but I landed in a place whereby the considerable heavy lifting of Henderson is covered by the likes of Healy and O’Brien before the closing stages where Iain’s addition could be invaluable, and in the meantime, we have a reliable lineout platform.
I know I haven’t mentioned too many Romanians (aka “The Oaks”) in this writeup, in fact I haven’t mentioned any at all. That’s because I have watched the game twice and at no point was I paying mind to the number on the back of one of their players. When watching the other matches at this World Cup, I can relax and take in everything that’s happening but when it’s Ireland, I’m sure I’m not alone in having on my maximum-strength green goggles!
Besides, the Romanians didn’t seem too disappointed by the result, given one of them chose to propose to his girlfriend on the pitch after the match! Clearly she was able to overlook the fact that he couldn’t even make the starting lineup in a team that just got crushed on the scoreboard and said yes ;-)
When Tonga play Namibia on Tuesday (where there’s bound to be another full house though of course it won’t be anywhere near 90k) the pool stage will be precisely at its halfway point with everyone having played two matches. Overall, this part of the tournament has exceeded expectations as far as I’m concerned and it is guaranteed to get even better.
As we fans go about our business during the week, we have seen precious little in Ireland’s displays to keep us from the overall outlook captured by the hashtag #TrustJoe.
To paraphrase Mr O’Herlihy one more time after the dodgily-punned headline, we’ll leave it there so and let them get on with it as they prepare for the Italians. JLP
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