Liam Toland: Plenty to watch for in Ireland’s new combinations
Exciting potential evident in the back three, the backrow and new second row pairing
James Ryan and Iain Henderson form a an interesting second row partnership for Ireland. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Can we give meaning to tomorrow’s clash of old, old adversaries?
A whole new Irish team back in play after two autumn victories; eight with single figure caps and one with none at all. But all the Irish players are rested and raring to go.
On the flip side Argentina are exhausted; well, I assume they are as I’m not privy to their air miles stats, their pitch time stats or indeed their fitness stats. They’ve travelled more miles for club (Jaguares) and country than Ireland’s rugby World Cup bid team. Ireland, by drastically improving their breakdown from Fiji, will immediately impact Andy Farrell’s quality defence and stunt Argentina’s attack to win tomorrow.
But that’s hardly enough as Ireland need to totally impose their sub unit combinations upon Los Pumas.
Argentine hooker Agustín Creevy captains both club (Jaguares) and country but not in the way Rory Best, his opposite number tomorrow, does for Ulster and Ireland. Best has played a handful of games confined to these isles as he didn’t travel to Southern Kings earlier this month. In fact Best’s first start this season was against Leinster in Belfast but four weeks ago.
Creevy has not just played but has started all Argentina’s Rugby Championship matches and all but one of the Super 15 games with Jaguares when he missed the Kings fixture (player welfare?). Both are class players with vastly different styles but Best and his team are perfectly placed to negotiate the obvious challenges but on their terms.
Best defended (struggled) out wide last time (RWC 2015) with Creevy attacking wider again; the breakdown sorts this.
However while Ireland are imposing their ruthless, relentless Joe Schmidt style I’ll be looking at combinations. James Ryan in the second row is really interesting; what side he’ll scrummage in his partnership with Ian Henderson is obviously important for Tadhg Furlong but with a vastly improved scrum awaiting Ireland the next time we pack down against Argentina or in the Six Nations these details count.
Who will manage the lineout and demand that pressure lineout ball – the banker? Or will that role be given to Peter O’Mahony?
As both Ryan and Henderson are similar, will they play a dual role around the park where both add real value to the ball? Consequently how good will this combination be in the dark murky trenches where Devin Toner has been relentlessly selfless in his clearing out but also added the sweetest of passes to Jordi Murphy on 10:07 against Fiji launching Darren Sweetnam down the tram tracks.
Combination balance is also crucial hence the inclusion of Rob Kearney with Jacob Stockdale and Adam Byrne who is yet another exciting starter and a window into Schmidt’s assessment of Argentina. Byrne has huge amounts to offer and like any first capper there are question marks (defence) that will ebb away with time and experience under Farrell.
The really good news from Byrne’s selection is that Jordan Larmour is not far behind. I am disappointed that Andrew Conway doesn’t back up from his powerful performance last Saturday. He appears as safe as Rob Kearney with added oomph when on the ball where his wingers are immediately hungry for the interchange and counterattack.
On this note it would be great to witness the full array of skills in Kearney’s locker. Yes he is brilliant in breakdowns and under the high ball and yes he can run directly back into heavy traffic but why not vary the play to place doubt in the onrushing Puma defensive line such as a varied return kicking game through finding green grass, corners or vulnerable Pumas under Garryowens?
Or shift the ball infield to waiting wingers and change the point of the counter attack or pass when under pressure of heavy traffic; value add from our backfield players.
With that in mind there are obvious combinations of players who are at ease with their subtle interactions. Furlong, for instance, has been brilliant with Leinster (and Ireland) around testing the tackle on his terms that afford him and combinations around him to profit off the varied passes he subsequently makes; pop, offload, flat pass wide or a pullback circle pass.
Space is oft times opened wider out where tries are scored. The plaudits will rest with the scorer or indeed the outhalf for shifting the ball but it’s those little subtle plays emanating from Furlong that get defenders biting and over committing to the ‘wrong’ man. He does it and players know it and hence play off his plays.
It would be great to see a much settled sub unit combination, the backrow, interact in similar fashion. The first ball Sean O’Brien carried against South Africa was but a ruse. No sooner had he sensed three Springboks biting on him he popped open to CJ Stander who slipped by Springbok secondrow Lood de Jager who was transfixed by O’Brien’s potential.
Both are superb ball carriers but O’Brien has brought variety into his ball carrying where Stander is still intent on battering his way through all sorts of obstacles.
O’Brien is aware there are many ways to create space which he affords others to exploit whilst staying alive. Subtle tip ons, offloads, circle passes that Furlong and O’Brien employ create value wider out where Stander doesn’t have to batter every time he’s on the ball.
With slight tweaking in personnel there are now a raft of quality rugby players lining up who can also add value to the ball.
Tomorrow is not a grudge nor a revenge match but a building exercise towards the Six Nations and RWC 2019 where tomorrow’s combinations and subsequent performance, especially from the back three, the backrow and second row is a window into how high we can aim.