Ireland Rugby Union November Squad Reflections

Ireland squad does not spring too many surprises

If anyone was looking for sensational sports headlines today, it probably was not coming from the Irish Rugby Union November squad selection. A consistent selection with one new face added to the camp. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the squad selection and his hopes after this set of November test match fixtures. 

No Murray as expected as Addison is included

The key talking points from this squad selection is the absence of Conor Murray and the inclusion of Will Addison to the camp. Murray’s absence is hardly surprising to anyone who has followed this season so far. Murray continues to rehab on an injury (yet to be disclosed) and the expectation is that the Limerick native will be back come the end of this calendar year. 

Will Addison’s inclusion is reward for a prominent start with Ulster Rugby. His versatility to slot into multiple back line positions evident this season; started the campaign at full back with impressive ball carrying statistics. In recent weeks, Addison has switched to the center and was prominent in the opening Ulster Rugby try last weekend at Racing 92; a superb line break and pass to David Shanahan. Addison should get game time and it will be interesting to see the defensive side of his game; he was exposed on more than one occasion against a rampant Racing 92 outfit last weekend. A good selection which if comes off provides more squad depth to Joe Schmidt. 

Scrum Half Depth Chart to be fully assessed 

During the summer international series, I had hoped that Joe Schmidt would have given the likes of Kieran Marmion or John Cooney sufficient time to impress in the nine jersey. This never materialized as Conor Murray was the default test match selection and the two players mentioned got paltry minutes. With Murray not in the squad, it provides an opportunity for Marmion, Cooney and Luke McGrath to grab the initiative and fully control the backup nine jersey battle. 

Interesting Hooker Depth Chart

An intriguing depth chart issue has emerged at hooker. With Rory Best’s absence from the successful Australian tour last summer, it provided a great opportunity for Rob Herring and particularly Niall Scannell to impress. Both players to be fair took their opportunities with solid outings. The big loser in this hooker squad depth was Sean Cronin who was a late scratch from the final test when primed to play. Best as team captain is first choice but it will be interesting to see how the depth chart on the other players goes. The game minutes for Scannell, Herring and Cronin will be duly noted ahead in this end of year test match fixture list. 

Tasty Second Row Battle 

If you are Joe Schmidt, you are faced with a hard but satisfying position. The second row coverage for this test match fixture list is superb. The big question is how Tadhg Beirne fits into the master plan? The Kildare native has made a superb start to his Munster Rugby career and his form in European action cannot be ignored but who do you drop from the second row. Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Quinn Roux will all be vying for game time next month as well. The second row combinations will be interesting to say the least; the balance of the front five is paramount. An unit where the depth chart is through the roof. 

Back Row Options aplenty 

The key question for me is where Sean O’Brien fits into the national side? Competition is fierce in the six and seven berths so wondering if the eight channel is an area where Ireland management will look to give O’Brien game time. The eight channel has two recognized players in the mix in CJ Stander and Jack Conan but a third option needs to emerge in the event of an injury crisis. Ruddock is an eight option but management could throw a curve ball to find additional player versatility — watch this space. The competition in the six and seven jersey battles looks fascinating; players such as Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock will drive each other to yet new high levels of performance. 

Will Carbery and Byrne get sufficient game time? 

We all know what Sexton brings to the table. What I am looking for is in this November test match series is the progression of Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne in the national team ten jersey, given ample time next month to show their skill set and game management.

This is realistically the last time that these players will be able to showcase their talent ahead of the 6 Nations tournament. Carbery has had an excellent start to the season with Munster Rugby amid injury chaos at scrum-half in the club. Ross Byrne has being an early season standout too and it remains to be seen whether the Leinster Rugby backup to Sexton will be given sufficient game minutes.

With a RWC 2019 schedule which will require full squad participation and quality, this is a vital squad selection for Joe Schmidt to identify the depth chart to the open positions. Roll on November!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 3 Reflections – Ireland

A weekend which did not fail to disappoint. Ireland just about got over the line over a determined Welsh challenge in an exciting test match.  Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Ireland performance.

Ireland win but areas to improve upon

The moment Gareth Anscombe threw that sweeping pass out to the wing, it was heart in the mouth stuff. Jacob Stockdale had committed to coming inside, he needed to intercept the ball, failure to do so and Wales potentially had a game winning try well and truly on. Stockdale has to be commended for finishing off the intercept to make the game safe but it should not have come to that for Ireland to secure this test match victory.

The possession count for Ireland in this test match was excellent (78% in the opening period). Five tries scored against a Welsh defensive who have traditionally nullified the threat from Ireland. The back row produced a stellar performance to nullify the threat of Josh Navidi and contributed with endless ball carries to setup excellent Ireland field position so how come did Wales score three tries given limited opportunities?

The defensive shape of Ireland in the second half particularly last quarter was ragged. McFadden exposed several times in that last quarter due to lack of defensive cover. The Welsh third try will be a video analysis 101 moment for Ireland. McFadden’s decision to become the second tackler was fair enough but his inability to stop the offload was poor allowing Steff Evans ample time and space to score to setup a dramatic climax.

Rob Kearney at full back was exposed on more than one occasion in the aerial battle. Wales’ aerial kick strategy was on point in the opening period of this contest as Biggar executed his kicking to a high level. Stockdale is such a threat ball in hand but his defensive skill set is a work in progress; his decision making in defensive position will need to improve but the attacking threat is sublime.

Sexton with ball in hand was excellent but his kicking off the tee was a mixed bag. 3/7 off the tee told its own story. The first two penalty kicks were unconvincing at best and that set the tone for the day on this aspect of play. His decision to take a quick tap and go deep in the second half could have had massive consequences. Three points blown and potentially an injury worry with Conor Murray leg trapped in a ruck.

The Good

What worked for Ireland? The resiliency of the side again was to the fore. After a nervy opening where Halfpenny was unerring in his opening penalty attempt. Ireland went up the other end of the pitch to score. Sexton’s superbly identifying Halfpenny out of position setting up Stockdale for an excellent score. This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Wales scored. Ireland responded.

The newcomers to the Ireland side rose to the occasion. Andrew Porter in the front row provided solidity at set piece and was busy in open play with his tackle count. Chris Farrell was sensational in the thirteen channel. The Munster center was prominent from kickoff, rising high to win an initial aerial challenge and also was the fulcrum to create line breaks. A worthy man of the match winner.

James Ryan and Devin Toner were excellent in the Ireland second row. Line out accuracy. John Ryan’s scrummaging was superb at the death to yield a critical penalty in the last quarter. Everyone contributed to this side. Squad depth issues not seen.

The back play at times was sensational. Keith Earls complemented Jacob Stockdale with several eye-catching breaks. His pace, ability to create try scoring opportunities from nothing seen to full effect in the second half when his kick on the sideline in the second half nearly saw a try being scored.

Conor Murray provided leadership throughout and his passing was on point. His ability to slot home the vital penalty on seventy-six minutes showed massive courage and determination given his injury scare moments before. Murray did need the post to assist but the kick needed to go over and he stepped over superbly. His aerial kicks saw productive results after a shaky opening quarter.

Looking further afield

Fourteen points after three games is an excellent return from Ireland but Joe Schmidt and management will know that there is plenty of scope for improvement. However, the squad depth question prior to the Welsh contest was answered emphatically. There is squad depth to fill in several positions in the second row, front row, back row areas.

Questions do still remain with regards to the ten jersey until Carbery gets the game time to show his worth. The cameo of McFadden was a mixed bag defensively and is an area that needs to be evaluated. The full back position as well needs to be examined. Rob Kearney is solid but we need other players to stake a claim to the jersey. A summer tour to Australia hopefully will address these concerns.

However for now. this has being an excellent start to the tournament for Ireland Rugby. Three wins from three sets up the team well but with challenges against the live threat of Scotland and also the perennially strong England at Twickenham, the Championship and Grand Slam is still very much wide open.