According to the official calendar there are 320 days left at the time of writing until Ireland's first match kicks off at RWC2019.
But according to the World Rugby test window calendar, in reality there are only 960 minutes of playing time left. What this means is that each match between now and then can be said to represent a dry run for different stages of the tournament.
For example, our upcoming meetings with Argentina, New Zealand and a hungry-for-revenge England can be seen like knockout games. Our second match in the Six Nations against Scotland, well, that's an easy one…we face them in our Pool A opener. And ironically given the political climate across the water, our clash with the USA can be considered to be very similar to the standard we're likely to meet against Russia. Which leads us to Saturday's encounter in Chicago. All due respect to Conor O'Shea and his operation, but I'd see them as one that could be similar to those we'll face when we're up against Samoa and host nation Japan next year. So if that's the case, the questions to be asked are simple. Can we afford to change our combinations and rest key players yet still come out with the job done and the maximum points brought home? I think the answer on Saturday was a very straightforward yes, and what's more a few players stepped up to pose Joe Schmidt & co many additional questions. We came agonisingly close to a perfect start. For some reason the Italians thought the best option at restarts was to kick it to Jacob Stockdale, and given he busted out of his 22 with just 17 seconds on the clock, it was odd that they continued throughout the match. And the Ulster winger's team mates were fully locked and loaded to support him. For the next minute or so we rolled through several phases (marks against the broadcasters as phase counters should be standard for watching Tier One test rugby no matter where it is) with perfect Schmidt-ball levels of accuracy and efficiency before Garry Ringrose broke free in the 22 only to lose it forward at literally the last available moment. But that setback was only going to postpone the inevitable. This starting XV set off with a try in their system and they were going put it on the board by any means necessary. When the Italians were pinged at midfield for not rolling away, Joey Carbery put a nice kick into the corner and from there it was made look easy… Lineout, Jack Conan carry, Tadhg Beirne carry, bang. Seven níl Ireland. We couldn't possibly ask for a better start to settle the nerves against Japan or Samoa. And for the next half hour or so, we even got a taste of what it would be like if those opponents chose not to simply roll over and let us have everything our own way, because on our next series of phases, Carbery felt compelled to try a long pass that wasn't really on and it was intercepted. Then we had some spells where Italy themselves had the ball, and while they were recycling the ball pretty well, our defensive structure was proving just as good as our early attacking ones were. As you'd expect from a Joe Schmidt test side, our two centres were among the leaders in our tackle count with both Aki and Ringrose registering 13, as did van der Flier with Jack Conan leading they way with 17. The closest the Italians got to manufacturing a try the conventional way was when they tried to plant it against the base of our post on 28 minutes but it was ruled a knock on. So as our opponents found our defence to be a brick wall, and we fell short on a few attempts to add our lead, it made for a scrappy half hour or so until Peter Stringer's prematch analysis of Luke McGrath came to perfect fruition. What the Irish Grand Slam scrum half hero pointed out was the way Luke would fire off a pass in front of a defensive tackling cordon and then set off straight ahead in anticipation of the receiver breaking through the gain line, and when we were around the Italian 22 this is exactly what happened as Jordan Larmour found a good line to get into the backfield to find his 9 in support to finish our second try. So that made it 12-0 and it looked like the dam was broken, but McGrath went on to have a few wobbles towards the end of the half. When a world class 9 like Conor Murray is ahead of you, putting box kicks on a sixpence is a minimum requirement to show you're a worthy backup and he was lucky that a couple of failed attempts to clear from his own 22 came back into Irish possession.
On his third go, he chose to run through a few phases to steal some yards that way, yet this time he tried to force a miss pass to Larmour and it was brilliantly read by the Italian skipper Campagnaro who took it in full flight to run it back to the line...all of a sudden it was halftime and “only 12-7” to Ireland. Which brings me back to my original point…what if it this were the situation against Japan or Samoa? That would not make for a happy halftime dressing room. But another thing Joe's teams have been good at is analysing the opposition to prepare the boys in green to come out for the second half as ready to score as they were at the start, and this proved to be the case yet again. When a loose pass from Tito Tebaldi was intercepted by Irish skipper Rhys Ruddock, once again his team-mates were ready to run, support, clear out, recycle, repeat all over again, probing and breaking the gain line in all the right places to get us close to the tryline until once more it was Tadhg Beirne running one of his juggernaut lines to crash over. It wasn't just Luke McGrath who seemed a fraction off his game at times… Joey Carbery did too and you could probably put it down to a shortage of chemistry between them that's only noticeable when you compare it to the 9/10 combo ahead of them in the Irish pecking order. Anyway, when he sliced a territory-seeking kick out on the full it looked like we could be in for another long spell without a score. But we were then to reap some reward for our stingy defence. As well a making it extremely difficult for opponents to find hard yards, it can also force them into hasty decisions, and when Campagnaro tried to get the ball quickly into the wider channels, his long pass took a wrong turn in mid air and landed straight into the arms of Jordan Larmour, so it was his turn to be intercepted and the run back for our fourth try was very straightforward. Now it was 28-7 and what would be a bonus point at the World Cup was secured by the 46th minute, so now it was time to start feeding in players from the bench to see if the systems would hold up. And we certainly weren't done making life difficult for them with the ball. One minute Beirne was rising high to swat down an Italian lineout dart, the next Andrew Porter was burrowing his way to a jacking penalty. Then there was our discipline, again at levels that had to satisfy the coach. While Nigel Owens is known as a ref who likes to let the game flow, that we only drew his whistle three times at 20, 34 and 48 minutes cannot be ignored. After a couple of Irish advances were thwarted by knock ons, we won a penalty at a scrum which gave us another lineout opportunity deep in their 22 which saw us go the ‘traditional’ route of mauling and it was Sean Cronin, on from halftime and clearly keen to cement his place in the elite 23, who got our 5th try. The schedule of substitutions continued as Beirne and Carbery were hauled ashore at 60 minutes for Devin Toner and Ross Byrne respectively, the latter of whom was finally getting his first cap. And the change certainly didn't do anything to stop us running up the score. Bundee Aki forced a turnover and his fellow centre Ringrose showed an outhalf's knack for spotting an opportunity by firing a perfect pass to Larmour out wide and he was able to step his way around would be tacklers all the way to the try line. An incredible finish that couldn't possibly be bettered, right? Then just a minute elapsed before we completed another quick two-try salvo. Cronin recovered another over thrown Italian lineout and after a strong carry by Kilcoyne (who played like someone keen to be noticed despite having two Lions ahead of him n the loose head pecking order), Ross Byrne was able to put Aki into space where he had Ringrose in support to finish. To this point all of our tries were garnished with conversions, and Byrne's kick for this seventh one was easily the most impressive. But with 7 times 7 being 49 it left us agonisingly short of being able to use the phrase ‘fifty-burger’ so as the clock ticked beyond 70 minutes, most Irish fans would probably have been greedy for any kind of try to finish things off nicely. But it was more than just ‘any kind of try” was it? Let's be clear on my opinion that Jordan Larmour was our man of the match. He didn't get it for his hat-trick, and he didn't even get it for the ‘would beat you in a phone box stuffed with Sumo wrestlers’ nature of his incredible multi-sidestepping run for that eighth try. He got the nod in my book because he also tended well to his full back duties. We know he can do well with or without space; that's how he caught Joe's attention enough to get that competitive 23 jersey for the Grand Slam decider. But he also did well under the high ball and played his part in a strong team defensive effort. And of course a very close second has to be Tadhg Beirne, again not just because of his multiple tries. Having already shown in both Scarlet and Munster red that he's a player that you leave out of your squad at your peril, now we know he brings those levels to the green shirt as well. Jack Conan gets a strong podium finish also. Trojan work around the pitch, always getting us on the front foot even on the are occasions we seemed to be getting driven back. But while there was a lull in that first half when the social media comments seemed to get easily distracted by Luke Fitzgerald commentary (I honestly didn't notice what everyone was on about, maybe I was too busy actually following the rugby?), this can only be seen as a good outing to start the November window. The only problems I can see Joe having when looking back over this are either easily fixable or ‘the good kind’. Not much more to be done now but look ahead to next weekend and see who steps up then. JLP
Later this week we'll have a guest post from Keego plus our 80-word reviews on Tuesday, Harpin Points on Wednesday, Telly post on Thursday and our Ireland v Argentina preview on Friday. Plus of course every morning our Front5 quotes & links. Do stay tuned!
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