Irish rugby took a significant step toward forgetting last year’s horrific campaign with a 40-9 victory over a disappointing Samoa on Saturday.
Joe Schmidt’s first game in charge could not have gone better, though the New Zealander was eager to dampen enthusiasm and described his side’s performance as “untidy” but “earnest” in a post-match interview.
Regardless of Schmidt’s views, Ireland’s performance showed there are indeed several reasons to feel positive going into this season’s 6 Nations.
Debutantes have a Ball
Schmidt handed a starting debut to Jack McGrath in place of Cian Healy, while Dave Kearney made his first Ireland appearance as a substitute in the 60th minute. McGrath went on to win the RTÉ Man-of-the-Match while Kearney scored a try five minutes after being introduced, following it up with a second 13 minutes later.
McGrath’s performance in an impressive scrum, as well as his work in the loose, means Cian Healy will now have to fight the 24-year-old for the loosedhead position at both provincial and national level.
Last season much focus was given (undeservedly) to Jamie Heaslip’s captaincy, critics pointing to his perceived lack of form or experience as proof the decision was a mistake. There can be no such discussion this time round, with the talismanic Paul O’Connell chosen to lead his country. Though Heaslip captained the side on Saturday due to O’Connell starting on the bench, the Munster second-row was introduced in the second-half and had a telling impact as Ireland scored three tries in that period.
However, with Heaslip and Munster captain Peter O’Mahony in the team alongside former Ireland captains Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best, there will no shortage of leaders in the dressing room.
Strength in Depth
The calibre of the replacements available to Ireland on Saturday was great to see, especially after the previous injury-ravaged campaigns. The fact that the match-day squad was missing quality players such as Simon Zebo, Johnny Sexton, Stephen Ferris and Luke Marshall is testament to the resources available to the national manager.
Added to that, Paddy Jackson’s performance confirmed the fact that Ireland can now call on three top-quality No. 10’s. After years of needing utility-man Paddy Wallace to act as cover for Ronan O’Gara, there is a genuine competition for places with Jackson, Sexton and (despite his current situation at Leinster) Ian Madigan all vying for a starting berth.
The Man in Charge
Schmidt’s post-match comments made clear he will not be getting carried away after one match. Singling out Brian O’Driscoll, Irish rugby’s Messiah, shows that the Kiwi will not be phased by big names or past achievements.
The fact that two of the manager’s substitutions converted three of the teams five tries highlighted his tactical nous, Sean O’Brien with a trademark barn-storming run over the line five minutes into the second half. Dave Kearney will draw great confidence from his cameo, while the selection of O’Connell as captain and his decision to start Jackson over Madigan will prevent any whispers of a Leinster bias from the former Leinster manager.