In the end, Ireland got their resounding victory, but they made hard work of it. 52-21 suggests a facile win, when in reality, momentum swung back and forth for 58 minutes. The concession of three tries, loss of control in the second quarter, and general lack of accuracy will have frustrated the management. It was a patched-together side that Ireland put out, and they did put their opposition to the sword in the final quarter. After scoring their first two tries at will, Ireland should never have allowed Canada to get back level, though. The visitors were competitive and aggressive, refusing to just roll over, instead testing Ireland. Intercept tries always have a deflating effect, and DTH van der Merwe’s was no exception. The purple patch that followed could have been dealt with better, and Ireland didn’t really take the wind out of Canada’s sails until Ultan Dillane’s try.
The lack of familiarity that goes with new combinations playing together often leads to mistakes, and while it’s hypercritical to complain about a team who scored eight tries, there were numerous handling errors from Ireland that ruined what could have been try-scoring opportunities:
Moments of inaccuracy like these pale into insignificance in the context of a big win, but if they are repeated against stronger opposition, there will be greater consequences. A cheap turnover against Canada can be recovered from; a cheap turnover against New Zealand costs 5 or 7 points.
Ireland experienced some problems defending against Canada that won’t have gone down well in the video review session. Canada targeted them around the fringes with several pick and go’s at a time, having seemingly identified this as a weak point in Ireland’s defence. The Irish pack (especially Billy Holland) defended this with little or no fuss, keeping Evan Olmstead, Djustice Sears-Duru and Aaron Carpenter relatively quiet with ball in hand, and they gave Gordon McRorie no room to snipe. It was the defence of Canada’s maul where Ireland struggled:
In the case of Taylor Paris’ try, the involvement of the Canadian backs was a mitigating factor. It’s hard for the defending team to know how many players to put into the counter-maul in that scenario, when there is no clear pattern to how many numbers the opposition are going to commit. The second example above will rankle with Simon Easterby because Ireland’s counter-maul was disjointed and technically incorrect. Ultan Dillane and Jack O’Donoghue waited too long to join, and when they did, it was in from the side as opposed to getting around to the front of the Canadian maul to build a stronger counter-drive.
In keeping with Andy Farrell’s style of defence, Ireland’s line speed was quick from start to finish. They forced two knock-ons from DTH van der Merwe and Conor Trainor a few metres out from their own try line with aggressive blitzing. It was the positioning of their backs that will be a source of consternation for Farrell:
Leaving so much room in the five-metre channel let Matt Evans have a significant influence in terms of his playmaking ability and injections into the line. If Canada had more in the way of skill and incision in midfield, Ireland’s narrow alignment could have been a bigger issue.
Making An Impression
With so many non-starters selected, this game was viewed through the prism of seeing who could challenge for a place against New Zealand by Irish spectators, and it was a useful exercise in that regard, despite the mistakes.
Sean Cronin was one of the best players with ball in hand in a team that contained Cian Healy and Seán O’Brien, and James Tracy followed his lead with brilliant running lines and dynamism in contact, with both players getting the better of Ray Barkwill in the loose. The most pleasing aspect of their performances was accurate lineout throwing against a team who have the personnel to pressurise opposition darts. Cronin sealed his bench spot against New Zealand, but Tracy can provide solid backup if Ireland’s first- or second-choice hookers are injured.
Cian Healy did a serious job on Jake Ilnicki in the scrum and he carried strongly throughout. He needed a convincing performance to secure his place against New Zealand, because Dave Kilcoyne is nipping at his heels. The Munster loosehead has transferred his outstanding club form to the Test stage, and even though he was running at a tired Canadian defence, cameos like this could earn him a bench spot against Australia:
John Ryan’s scrummaging allowed Ireland to continue their evisceration of the Canadian scrum even after their starting front row were substituted, and his clearing-out at the ruck was quick and efficient. It was as good a first cap as any tighthead prop could hope for, but not enough to overtake Finlay Bealham, after the Connacht man spent 47 minutes putting in dominant hits like this:
Billy Holland’s performance was one that was only appreciated on second viewing. He got through a mountain of grunt work in-close: hard-carrying, tackling around the fringes, and his rucking efforts meant that Ultan Dillane had the freedom to do damage around the park. Holland is the type of player that would be useful against a team like England or South Africa on a wet day, where there’s a lot unglamorous graft to be done around the ruck. Joe Schmidt has spoken highly of Holland and his contribution to Ireland’s win could very well warrant involvement against stronger opposition down the line.
Ultan Dillane was the best player on the pitch by a mile, but Henderson not being risked against Canada, coupled with Schmidt seeing Dillane as an impact substitute at this point, means that the Connacht tyro will have to settle for a bench spot this Saturday. With carries like these, he deserves to be brought on earlier than he was in Chicago:
In the back row, there was a strange contrast between the performances of Ireland’s flankers. Seán O’Brien was explosive in the first half and fatigued in the second, whereas Peter O’Mahony grew into the game. O’Brien’s more immediate impact should get him into the matchday squad against New Zealand as a substitute rather than a starter, considering that his match fitness isn’t at optimum level. Jack O’Donoghue didn’t cause the level of damage with ball in hand that was expected of him, but in defence, he showed that he’s comfortable at this level physically:
It will be another 5 or 10 caps before Kieran Marmion shows what he’s capable of at Test level. There were almost no impressive darts around the fringes which he does so frequently for Connacht, but he passed and box-kicked well in what was a solid first start. His identification of the space on the short side for Keith Earls’ try was intuitive, although he could have done a better job of drawing Marius van der Westhuizen’s attention to Canada’s forwards being slow to roll away from the ruck, similar to what Conor Murray did against New Zealand the previous week.
Luke McGrath didn’t get enough time to really put his stamp on proceedings, but he showed good awareness to disrupt Canada’s possession from set-pieces twice in the last 10 minutes, and his passing was accurate. Getting snared by opposition forwards when getting the ball out of the ruck seems to happen to him regularly. With plenty of game time ahead for Leinster after the retirements of Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss, he’s probably going to be a more complete player by the end of the season.
Paddy Jackson got excellent height and hang-time on his restarts and his place-kicking was faultless, even with some difficult kicks. There were handling errors, but quality cut-out passes to put players into space too. Joey Carbery contributed a half-break in the closing minutes and he got the players around him running through holes. He also had a habit of standing deep and running laterally before passing. His place-kicking shortcomings tip the balance heavily in Jackson’s favour to wear the 22 shirt against New Zealand.
Luke Marshall’s strength in contact got Ireland over the gain line off first-phase, and his defensive reads and tackle technique were valuable. However, there were too many mistakes (knock-ons, kicks out on the full) from a player of his experience, and as mentioned earlier, there’s a high price to be paid for turning the ball over against New Zealand. It’s unfortunate that this Test came at a time when Marshall is off his best; he showed how influential he can be at this level against South Africa in Cape Town, and his form earlier in the season was much better.
Garry Ringrose had a quiet first half, apart from running an unders line off Paddy Jackson for a disallowed try. The handling errors from Jackson and Marshall prevented him from cutting loose completely, but his talent was evident in the second half:
Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble are certain to start this Saturday, given how well they complement each other and their performances in Chicago, but the 23 jersey is up for grabs. Despite performing well against Canada, it’s not likely to go to Ringrose because he is exclusively an outside centre, and versatility is needed for the bench, and Niyi Adeolokun didn’t see enough of the ball to state his case.
Tiernan O’Halloran is a contender for a bench spot after an outstanding performance at full back (and being able to play on the wing works in his favour), but the ability to cover the midfield and the back three means Keith Earls will presumably get the nod. Except for their first exchange, he got the better of DTH van der Merwe, and he displayed immense physicality against Canadian defenders. The fact that he was repeatedly used at second-receiver in multi-phase attacks indicates that the management may have this as a specific role in mind for him in the future:
Craig Gilroy made a number of breaks down the right wing (albeit against an admittedly poor defence), some of which ended with him kicking possession away when he would have been better served keeping ball in hand. His kick-chasing was decent and there were incisive running lines when he was brought in off his wing, but like Ringrose, being a specialist who can cover one other position at a push reduces the probability of him featuring against New Zealand.
Expanding The Playbook
After the satisfactory displays from the new caps and reassuring performances from the experienced players, the biggest positive to be taken out of the game from an Irish point of view was the addition of new dimensions to their attack. The tactic of going through multiple phases in their own 22 and using the width of the pitch was employed again, which suggests that it’s something that Joe Schmidt is going to persist with:
While this was effective in Chicago, a lot of that had to do with it being unexpected. Ireland normally kick from deep in their own half, and the New Zealand wingers dropped into the backfield whenever Ireland were in that part of the pitch, leaving space at the edges. The Canada video analysts did their homework and were prepared, with a shooter defence in midfield yielding the intercept try above, as well as a pass to deck from Paddy Jackson shortly before half-time. Ireland shouldn’t be deterred from going wide from anywhere, but a variation on the patterns used in those situations may be in order to make it less predictable.
The introduction of a well-executed, intricate lineout move involving a wraparound between a forward and a scrum-half, and an inside pass to a trailing support runner was worth noting:
In this instance, it only led to a half-break for Keith Earls, but you get the feeling that it’s designed to exploit a weakness in New Zealand’s first-phase defensive structure.
There were also new additions to Ireland’s phase play attack. They have been using pull-back passes from their forwards to create space out wide with regularity since the Six Nations, but two-out passes to give their ball carriers extra time and space to work with are becoming more prominent:
The return of Peter O’Mahony being used as a distributor in wider channels was a welcome surprise. The Munster flanker’s best performances for Ireland have been remembered for his scavenging work, and his influence in that area against Canada increased as the game progressed, but it was encouraging to see Ireland get good use out of his handling skills as well:
These developments, along with Jamie Heaslip being positioned out near the touch line against New Zealand in Chicago, signal a recognition on the part of the management of the need for the continuing evolution of Ireland’s attack if they are to beat New Zealand again.