Monday, August 12, 2019


Spare a thought for poor Rob Herring.
Early reports of the recurrence before the end of the first quarter of the back twinges that ended his involvement in Ireland’s opening Guinness Summer Series International (aka ‘World Cup Warmup’) suggest that “it isn’t anything too major”.  Still, it wouldn’t have hurt us (myself included) to have bandied his name about a lot more after full time, however much more of a part Joey Carbery is expected to play in Japan.

As we all know, each of the 23 who togged out in Ireland’s alternate kit on Saturday would surely have been unable to avoid some kind of niggling fear of World Cup-denying injury, and some of them, like one Tommy O’Donnell, know quite a bit about the subject.  

Here’s hoping the very best for both of them, as well as of course those from all from the competing nations who suffered similar fates over the weekend.  It’s the sport’s biggest tournament, it only happens every four years, yet the only way to prepare is to play, so the risks will always be there. But their playing future is for the medical professionals to decide, and for now all we can do is first rejoice that top flight rugby is back, and then to analyse our first 80 minutes of action and see what it has given us.

Well for the opening 10 minutes or so, it didn’t offer much.  It looked like someone swapped the Gilbert rugby ball for a bar of soap in that time, such was the amount of knockons and fumbles.  I’m happy to put all that down to a perfect mix between early season rustiness and the on/off nature of the Saturday Dublin rain, assuming you are too.

One feature of that opening spell which caught my eye was Ireland’s exit strategy of choice off opposing restarts.  Over the years we have come to assume that 99 times out of 100 the aim of a Schmidt team at those times was to receive the ball, set up a few phases, and clear by way of the boot, usually from your scrum half.

Now it seems we’re not only resorting to kicking much earlier in the sequence, but we’re also doing it with a view to getting the ball back.  Definitely a risky move so deep in your own territory, but then again much of Joe's way of thinking is based around a combination of risk-taking and confidence in your own accuracy levels.  Thus the high balls were being launched out of our 22 right from the get-go, mostly aimed towards Andrew Conway.

Why would we try this?  Maybe it was just for these warm-ups matches so as not to give away too many of our patterns ahead of the big show in Japan.  Or maybe it’s something we want to show other test nations, possibly those outside the top six or seven in the world, to keep them honest so maybe they’ll throw a bit more coverage on the far side of the pitch in those situations.

Anyway - Conway wasn’t too far off catching those first couple of attempts, although the second time he ended up getting pinged after a couple of ricochets saw the ball come back to him following a knockon, thus giving the Italians an early chance to try their hand in our 22.

We got pinged on the first two mauls which meant for the third we held back enough for Italian number 8 Jimmy Tuivati to peel off and bring it all the way to just short of the line and when we finally got him down, we left a massive space for flanker Maxime Mbanda to take the ball and simply fall over the whitewash with it and just like that Conor O’Shea’s men were in front.  Not a good start for us and I’m sure Joe will be spending a little extra time on Monday morning pointing out who should have been where.

But I have said it several times reviewing both Leinster and Ireland over the years...judge thee not our overall display by the first conceded score alone, especially when we we're yet to have a real chance, apart from a loose ball kicked forward that Dave Kearney was unlucky not to retrieve.  Let’s at least wait until we’ve been able to play some of our own game before we bring the doom and gloom.

Sure enough, when the Italians tried more conventional means of exiting after the restart yet couldn’t manage it, we got ourselves some possession and interestingly we still chose to go to the boot relatively early, now stabbing kicks past rushing defenders towards the corner and on one particular occasion, Carbery’s effort sat up perfectly forcing Mateo Minozzi, who right up to kickoff thought he’d be playing much later in the contest, to take it into touch.

Now this patchwork Irish XV had the chance to show what they could do.  If they couldn’t feel the vibes of expectation coming from the rather subdued Aviva Stadium crowd, they certainly could from their onlooking coaches.  On the first lineout we rumbled through a few phases before the Azzuri were pinged for not releasing so Carbery put one into the far corner to see what we could get from there.

This time it was Rhys Ruddock getting the first carry and it was the first of many bouts of heavy lifting for Ireland’s skipper of the day.  Once he had wrestled his way past the first up tacklers to get the ball close to the line, he was able to set us up for a series of pick-and-goes (picks-and-go?🤔) before the ball was finally sent out to the backs.

Clearly Chris Farrell’s job was always to turn and chuck a deep enough pass inside to the onrushing Carbery but the way things turned out, he only had a fraction of a second to do it so how he managed to find his mark only he will know.  The hands were so quick and accurate that the Italians hadn’t a hope of getting close to his Munster team mate and boom, we had a 7-5 lead.

It was in the aftermath of this try that Herring was replaced by Niall Scannell and from the restart we went for the high ball out of the 22 again only this time Conway showed exactly why we had so much confidence in the move when he made plucking it out of the air look easy.  Unfortunately moments later Jordan Larmour couldn’t quite match action with confidence when his attempted chip ended up giving Benvenuti space to break clear putting his side back on the front foot.

A few phases later they got it into the wider channels where Bisegni grubbered one towards the line and according to the TMO check, Carlo Canna was onside following up and managed to put his side back in front by getting the touchdown, although he failed once more to convert.

Once again we managed to regather our resolve and claw our way back in front, only this time it took a bit longer and needed a bit of luck in the process.  One area that was doing well for us in the first half was the scrum with good shoves coming from the starting pack no matter who had the put in and soon after one such penalty, referee Luke Pearce was very generous in merely awarding another after Italian hooker Fabiani deliberately knocked on.

From the resulting lineout after we went once more to the corner, we had some classic Schmidtball to enjoy.  One off the top from Toner, Chris Farrell on the crash ball putting us on the front foot near the tryline, and then a series of passes - Luke McGrath, Ruddock, Carbery, Ringrose, Larmour and finally Dave Kearney over for the score. 
I thought Ringrose’s pass was the pick of the bunch because he seemed to have to adjust his aim at the last moment as he turned to get it to Larmour yet it in no way slowed down the move. A sweet strike from the touchline by Carbery meant we were now 4 points ahead.

Although the sides now had two tries apiece, our second seemed to settle us into the dominance we were looking for.  After a carbon copy of the Carbery/Conway combo paid off after the restart, we then had the best Irish sequence of the match as he quickly went to a crossfield kick to the other wing towards Dave Kearney, clearly so he wouldn’t feel left out in the kick-retrieving stakes.

The Leinster winger, who I felt in my (now on video) preview deserved his spot after an impressive (if under the radar) series of outings in blue since the turn of the year, gathered the kick and quickly turned the defenders ahead of him by planting a grubber to stop just short of the try line, heaping even more pressure on Minozzi and although he was able to withstand Kearney’s tackle, he didn’t count on both O’Donnell and Ringrose providing brilliant support and their combined aggression meant when the ball was transferred to Esposito, he couldn’t avoid being tackled over the line meaning the net result was a 5m scrum for Ireland.

Time for us to make hay and from the set piece we won yet more penalty advantages (surely in a more competitive fixture the ref would have gone to his pocket) before we once more patiently created the space out wide and eventually it was Conway dotting down in the corner, just 3 minutes from the interval.

So after a shaky enough start, the boys clearly settled to regain the lead going into the break. Normally that's not how we'll want it, particularly against teams like Italy we'd be expected to defeat comfortably...hitting the ground running in (and definitely against) Japan will be crucial come late September but allowances can definitely be made for any rustiness in this particular match.

One very interesting change was made at the break, with Jack McGrath substituted and Andrew Porter asked to revert to his academy position of loosehead. Definitely a move to get our keyboards clicking and with Dave Kilcoyne seeming to hoist himself up into second slot in our loose head pecking order, not a good sign for McGrath.

But whatever about our slow start in the first half, the same could not be said for the second, another time when we are known to do well. We were greedy from the kickoff as we went short in the hope of retaining possession and while that didn't pay off, it wasn't long before we were back asserting ourselves.

Andrew Conway wrapped up his deserved man of the match award with another fine catch from a box-kick, this time an Italian one, and some quick hands by Larmour and a neat step by Ringrose later, we were soon deep in their 22 once more.

Their scramble defense was decent to a point but when eventually it led to yet another penalty, the ref once more was erring on the side of lenient by keeping the cards in his pocket. Still, we put it to the corner for another go at the maul and a fine take from debutante Jean Kleyn led to Jordi Murphy peeling off and falling over the line for our virtual bonus point try.

Given the scheduled substitutions were about to kick in, that was a great time to score for the starting unit but not long afterwards, a scenario we were all dreading came to pass.

From the restart our latest go at the high-risk exiting failed giving the Italians possession around our own 22 and in the midst of their subsequent series of phases, while the good news was that our defensive coverage remained solid, the bad was that Carbery appeared to go over his ankle and had to be stretchered off.

His disappointment was clear for all to see, although anyone who has played team sports will know that something that feels long term in the moment can often turn out to be much less critical, so as I suggested earlier, I'm somehow typing this with all my fingers crossed.

The show of course had to go on and his replacement at outhalf was Connacht's Jack Carty, who saw out the game with a series of very impressive cross field territory kicks all of which found the mark and pinned the Italians back in and around their own 22.

But the late Irish cameo that stood out most of all was that of Tadhg Beirne. Much like his general arrival to the test set up, the time spent waiting in the wings did not phase him and at more or less his first breakdown he got to work burrowing his way into a ruck and winning a jackling pen as he is wont to do, giving us more prime attacking ball.

Although the lineout dart was overthrown by Scannell, we reacted well enough to put so much pressure on Ian McKinley's clearance that Kieran Marmion was able to block his kick and the rebound fell perfectly over the line for the Connacht scrum half to retrieve and stretch our lead even further.

I'd like to say I was chuffed that I was just one point off in my match prediction but I'd have gladly sacrificed those bragging rights for another score or two in the closing stages yet it wasn't to be. Fair play to them for at least choosing to play beyond the clock going red for the sake of the crowd, it must be said.

Just one last recap on individual performances and specific areas...I thought Tommy O'Donnell put in a fine display throughout, leading the tackle count with 17 as well as a host of 'unseen work', Kleyn seemed to settle in extremely well as I thought he would, Luke McGrath's passing was at times a tad on the high side, Ringrose seemed to always get involved exactly when we needed him, I thought the scrum went down a gear or two when Porter made his switch, and finally while Carty and especially Beirne impressed off the bench, perhaps Haley should get another chance in this series to impress.

But what did this match actually do for Irish Rugby? Well there certainly was plenty for the coaches to pore over; any 80 minutes will do that. And for rugby nerds like myself, as you can see by the 2000 plus words above, I didn't have any trouble finding things on which to harp.

However there's a new ad for Heino (believe me I'm not being sponsored though if they wanted to open discussions I'd be willing 🍻😜) ahead the World Cup which depicts an Irish rugby fan who is trying to enjoy watching the team play despite not knowing everything that's going on. It makes for a lot of fun set-pieces in the video, but it also touches on a critical point.

For every one of us who loves the game enough to write or read a blog about it, there are dozens like that chap in the ad and there wasn't a whole lot to get him excited on Saturday. He certainly wouldn't have left the Aviva Stadium wondering why high kicks were so prevalent in our exit strategy or pondering the wisdom of Porter's switch to loose head. In fact, he may not have been at the match at all given the ticket prices were possibly a shade higher than they could have been (I can hear some of you saying "shade???" out loud as I type), thus leaving a host of unnecessarily empty seats.

If there's one real takeaway to be gleaned from this preliminary outing, it's that the game badly needs to capture the imagination of fans like that when given the opportunity, especially when the upcoming stage is to be the biggest there is.

While the boys in green continue vying for spots on the plane to Japan (a massive Twickers test is up next), maybe we can do some preseason work of our own to get more on board to the cause by converting fence-sitters over to our levels of egg-chasing fandom so Joe and his squad have an even bigger green army behind them in the crucial weeks to come. JLP

Later this week on Harpin On Rugby...

Wednesday - Podcast
Friday - Leinster v Coventry preview
Saturday - liveblog from Energia Park
Every morning 8:30am - Front 5
Plus regular content here on the site, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram.
Stay tuned!!!

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019