By Phil Rice
Ireland ended their 2017/18 season at the weekend fittingly, with a hard-fought victory over one of the serious contenders for next year’s World Cup, Australia.
The series victory over Michael Cheika’s Wallabies – Ireland’s first in the Southern Hemisphere since 1979 – was thoroughly deserved, even with Joe Schmidt’s scheme to give all of his tour squad some game time.
Heady times for Irish rugby supporters with unprecedented success both at provincial and international level.
Schmidt learned the lesson that having a quality XV is not all that is required to be successful come World Cup time. Ireland need a strong squad that can cover for the sort of eventualities that the team experienced in New Zealand in 2015.
The Ireland coach has set about building a ‘shadow XV’ that he can depend on should they again experience a similar injury crisis to key players.
The demands of Leinster’s Champions Cup victory and Pro14 success began to show in Sydney’s third Test decider, but the Irish defence displayed great character to withstand the onslaught from the talented Australian attack.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) June 23, 2018
Wave after wave thundered down on the Irish line, but somehow they held on for a historic victory.
Ireland were visibly wilting under the onslaught, but the confidence gained from their successes this season gave the players the self-belief that they deserved victory, and that they had the capability to hold out for their just deserts.
Schmidt commented afterwards: “Tough, tough to watch that. Australia were super in the second half, and it was a super effort from our guys to hang on and keep them out.”
But above everything else Schmidt is a pragmatist and he knows that Ireland are still not the finished article. In order to beat the All Blacks they will have to raise the bar even further.
It was good that so many fringe players got game time in such a demanding series, with the team still managing to be successful.
The likes of John Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Jordan Larmour, Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway and Jack Conan all benefitted from the exposure they gained at this level.
It was particularly important for Carbery, as the dependence the team has on Johnny Sexton is one of the concerning aspects of Ireland’s current situation.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) June 23, 2018
The Irish halfbacks, Sexton and Conor Murray, are among the very best in the business and without them they would certainly not have won this series. Nor could they have serious thoughts of winning next year’s World Cup.
Their importance was underlined by the fact that only five minutes of the final two successful Test matches were played without both players on the pitch. Carbery will hopefully have more game time as a fly-half in Munster colours next season.
He is a fine prospect but he is a long way short of being a consistent international player at this stage. Equally, the reserve scrum-half position is far from determined as yet.
Luke McGrath is considered by many observers to be the second best number nine in Ireland at the moment, but it appears that Schmidt doesn’t share this view as the Leinster player didn’t even make the tour squad.
Schmidt will not want to experiment during next year’s Six Nations, which leaves just the autumn internationals for the Ireland coach to assess the contenders for the position as Murray’s understudy.
Since one of those games will be against the All Blacks, it really only leaves the Argentina and USA matches for experimentation.
The other issue that won’t have escaped Schmidt’s shrewd observation will be that Ireland have dominated their opponents in terms of possession and territory during the past six months, but apart from the Italy game they have failed to turn that supremacy into the points that such domination deserved.
Even against the Italians they capitalised on their opponent’s mistakes, rather than creating tries through their own flair or expansive style.
When Ireland almost beat New Zealand in 2013, and then did eventually beat them in 2016, they played an expansive game that we hadn’t seen before, or seen since.
Perhaps Schmidt is saving that game-plan for games against the ultimate warriors, the All Blacks.
But it is difficult to just switch on a different style and Schmidt will know that if he is to beat the world’s best, Ireland will have to develop a more expansive game with greater creativity and flair.
He has amended the Irish style before and I suspect he realises that he needs to tinker with their approach again if they are to seriously challenge for the World Cup.
It is perhaps unfair to be anything other than complimentary about this Irish team and their management after such a successful year, but such is the expectation that this talented bunch of players have created we are now seriously considering them as potential World Cup winners.
In order to achieve that, their exceptional coach will know that there is still work to be done and who would bet against this unique individual from teasing out the development needed in his team to reach that level.