Ireland were good, Samoa weren’t but in terms of delivering a substantial performance at the right time on the appropriate stage this was just what the doctor ordered.
It wasn’t perfect like it will need to be next Saturday but, as a confidence-restorer, it made for the right mix of intensity, control, precision and pure physicality against a side that traditionally thrives on the latter quality.
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With the bonus point already in the bag and victory all but assured with half an hour still remaining, the Irish management could hardly have scripted it any better in terms of unleashing the bench and giving our star players most in need of the bubble wrap treatment exactly that.
The forwards certainly gave them the platform but this was the day in which our halves looked back to their best. It hinted at 2018 revisited and that Grand Slam-winning input.
Both Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were outstanding with each conjuring the best out of the other. Sexton clearly made the greater impact on the day but show me a 10 on fire and I’ll show you a nine putting the relevant pieces in place.
They weren’t the only ones in green to up the ante but if we are to have any chance of progress from here, it is imperative our chief orchestrators, specifically Murray and Sexton, are given the appropriate ammunition to do what they do as well as any combination in the game.
The Samoans performed the Siva Tau (their war dance) with menace but after that went AWOL. By contrast, every single Irish player stepped up and, allowing for Robbie Henshaw’s ring-rust, we took control early and with conviction.
I might add at this point that the comments of Keith Earls in advance of kick-off in Fukuoka offered this observer much encouragement. The Munster man wasn’t interested in the possibility of dodgy underfoot conditions or the impact of Typhoon Hagibis in the build-up. His attitude of it “being the same for both teams and let’s get on with it” suggested the Irish mindset was right.
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The only undeniable negative relates to Bundee Aki’s red card. Despite Henshaw’s tepid showing allied to Chris Farrell’s encouraging form prior to injury, if I were in Schmidt’s shoes, I would declare Henshaw/Garry Ringrose as my midfield combination early in the week. He is unlikely to do it publicly but, behind closed doors, he might give them the nod to help their focus for the biggest game of their lives.
Our percentage play and keep-ball, particularly in the red zone, was impressive; however, quite why we can’t trust our outside backs – unless the referee puts out his hand for a penalty thereby giving us a free shot – simply defies rugby logic.
When the defending team is squeezed tight through sheer weight of numbers, the option is open to attack wide. It’s not rocket science. I hate the kind of ‘rumble rugby’ we produced in the third quarter although I do recognise it has its place. All that said, there is no doubt our total control fed into the collective confidence so evident on the day.
Other magic moments? Larmour’s break and instant soft delivery for the outstanding Sexton’s first try. Joey Carbery’s deft grubber for Andrew Conway’s third of the tournament to date. The in-form Munster back-three player has looked sharp with every opportunity and continues to knock on the door for a starting berth.
Along with Dave Kilcoyne these two have been the best of the rest by far.
There were big performances too from Rory Best (lineout-throwing on the money), Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, whose foraging was quite superb, and CJ Stander while the official man of the match Larmour has given Schmidt what will probably be his biggest headache of the week.
The big calls will be at 15 and at six where I would still start with Peter O’Mahony alongside the nailed-on Josh van der Flier and the revitalised Stander.
However, it is at full-back where the head coach will need to test his own mettle and, dare I suggest, his moral courage too. As a Rob Kearney supporter – in my view the best full-back we have ever had – I find it difficult even suggesting his omission from the outside looking in but we need something different and in Larmour we have it in spades.
For Christian Cullen and more recently Damian McKenzie breaking through into the All Blacks, read Larmour in an Irish context now. In moving up a gear to face southern hemisphere opposition, having Larmour as the first name on the team sheet would make for a very real announcement of intent.
I will have no quarrel if Kearney gets the nod but equally I am in little doubt that through Larmour’s vindication this Irish management would be announcing a mid-tournament team with match-winning and potentially cup-winning ambition.
I still have to be convinced we have what it takes to beat the big two (with respect to the Wallabies) at a World Cup.
But to that end a 23 along the lines below would provide a timely boost in the build-up.
Tony Ward’s Ireland team to face New Zealand – J Larmour; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong; I Henderson, J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: S Cronin, D Kilcoyne, A Porter, T Beirne, R Ruddock; L McGrath, J Carbery, A Conway.
England v Australia, 8.15am
New Zealand v Ireland, 11.15am
Wales v France, 8.15am
Japan v South Africa, 11.15am
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