A key milestone achieved from this current Ireland Rugby management and playing squad, a series win, coming from behind to secure a 2-1 series win. A series which has provided useful clues to the makeup of the RWC 2019 squad setup. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tour.
Back row versatility
The back row depth has being used to the maximum in this summer tour. From the initial back row unit of Murphy, Stander and O’Mahony in the first test, personnel changes aplenty with Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Tadhg Beirne getting valuable game time.
What have we learned from this tour? The back row unit has versatility. The performance of Stander from the six position was sensational. Stander was immense in his breakdown work and his ball carrying, tackle count were to the fore throughout the series. It allowed Jack Conan to slot into the eight channel and he performed well with Murray at nine and O’Mahony continuing to disrupt Australia in line out and breakdown work.
When you consider that the likes of Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier were back in Ireland recuperating from injury, it presents a superb conundrum for Schmidt and management on who possibly leave out. The players mentioned will be doing everything in their power to regain their places in Leinster and ultimately look to catch the attention of Schmidt. The back row squad depth is vast and is an unit where cover is not an issue.
Hooker Depth Chart
The big loser on this summer tour has being Sean Cronin. The Leinster hooker was offered precious game time in a decisive test match but his failure to recover from injury opened the door for Niall Scannell and Rob Herring to further consolidate their places in the squad. Cronin is looking remote in the depth chart given this tour and with the confidence that Herring and Scannell have received during this tour, the odds of Cronin in RWC 2019 is slim.
There would be issues for Cronin with Leinster Rugby as James Tracy will look to push onto the next level this season. Tracy looks primed for considerably more game time in provincial action and that could spell even more issues for Cronin. A key season for Cronin beckons at Leinster Rugby let alone the national side. An opportunity definitely lost. Rory Best will slot back into the squad; the rest will do the captain a power of good and will come back fresh. Great news for Ireland.
Half Back Dependency Issues
If there is a negative from the tour, it is that we still do not know the depth chart for the nine and ten positions. Put simply, if Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton go down (heaven forbid) with a RWC 2019 ending injury, we are going into the unknown as to the quality in the backup positions.
While New Zealand were able to slot Damien McKenzie into the ten slot last weekend to consolidate and evaluate his value at the position, Ireland were focused for a series win and that meant Murray and Sexton were the first names on the team sheet.
No significant game times for Marmion or Cooney so Luke McGrath in effect has not missed out on his ambitions to return to the national team setup. Byrne was seen in training sessions but not much else and Carbery did not feature in the last two test matches. November test series needs to answer these half-back depth chart questions, otherwise Ireland run the risk of going into the abyss heading into RWC 2019 battle.
Some people were speculating that Bundee Aki was vulnerable in retaining his twelve position. Can we please stop this hideous fake news? Aki is the lock at the twelve channel. His work rate and ability to create gain line breaks so apparent last weekend in the Sydney test match. Early gain line breaks and then ability to support the kicking game, winning turnover ball. His defensive and tackle success rate is exceptional. The twelve channel is a lock. The twelve jersey is Aki’s.
This leaves the thirteen jersey up for grabs. Ringrose’s cameo in the second test match oozed class. His defensive nous has so improved in twelve months and his ability with ball in hand setting up opportunities for colleagues in the back line unit. Henshaw after a rusty opening test match came to the party last weekend. His defensive duties perhaps outweigh his attacking threat but an incredible option to have; his versatility to fill both positions in the three quarters key.
The squad depth then looks at the likes of Chris Farrell who Joe Schmidt admires. His 6 Nations cameo was massively exciting with his physicality on both sides of the ball. The likes of Arnold, Rory Scannell, Tom Farrell, Stuart McCloskey will be looking to impress early doors this season to get a foot into the camp for the November series. Interesting squad depth battle for the final three quarters berth beckons!
A Leader is born
James Ryan was incredible in this summer tour. He is now the automatic second row option for Ireland and the question now for Ireland management to see how complements the Leinster Rugby lock best. Options aplenty here with Toner emerging with massive kudos in this summer series. Henderson had keynote moments in the tour as well. Beirne comes into the equation in this second row unit as well but does Schmidt see Beirne as the utility back? James Ryan, the question is when he gets the captaincy.
Front Row Conundrum
This is a summer tour where Ireland’s front row impressed massively in the last two tests. After a subdued opening test match (yes, there were good moments), the unit came to the fore in the last two tests where the line out, maul and scrum set piece were incredibly on point. The emergence of Porter and Ryan to the squad depth which provides front row versatility is a big plus. Jack McGrath needs to improve his discipline next season, otherwise Porter or Ryan could be ahead of the Lions player in the squad depth chart.
Adapting to officiating inconsistency
Most pleasing aspect to this tour is how Ireland responded to adversity. Two yellow cards in the second test. Stockdale pinged in the final test match. The team were well organized defensively against a dangerous Australian outfit. The officiating over the test series are wholly inconsistent and Ireland could have lost composure with some rulings against them.
Ireland Rugby are a different proposition to the previous teams; their ability to stay composed, executing the game plan despite adversity is the hallmarks of this side. As long as the squad stay hungry for further success and continue to improve as individuals and from an unit perspective, it all leads to exciting times for RWC 2019.