Strength and depth of Ireland’s roster continues to grow
This series all about building a formidable squad for Ireland coach Joe Schmidt
Dave Kilcoyne barges through the Argentina defence of Marcos Kremer and Enrique Pieretto on Saturday evening. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Twice this month Joe Schmidt mentioned Martin O’Neill. He felt his pain after Denmark did to the Republic of Ireland what Argentina did to Schmidt’s injury ravaged squad at the 2015 World Cup.
“It’s something that Martin O’Neill said recently: ‘We can defend a loss and still go out, or we can chase the win.’ In chasing wins, you’re potentially going to expose yourself to a bit of vulnerability.”
Eradicating vulnerabilities has been the hallmark of Schmidt’s eight seasons on Irish soil. As a result, everything seems possible. It also feels weird. Ireland, as a sporting nation, need geeing up. Need a cause.
“Ireland surprised us in the way they played,” said Los Pumas coach Daniel Hourcade. “In the last two or three years they didn’t play like that, and today they played a lot from their own half and wide. It is a style we’re used to because the southern hemisphere sides play that way, but we didn’t expect Ireland to play that way. That’s credit to coach Joe Schmidt.”
Schmidt gives compliments, he’s not so fond of receiving them.
“I’m surprised Daniel said that. We want to mix our game up. There is a real licence to play if the opportunity is there, play to the space.”
Schmidt’s Ireland have become a ruthlessly efficient. Dave Kilcoyne is one of many converted disciples. Amidst the revival of Cian Healy and Jack McGrath becoming a global force on the Lions tour of New Zealand last summer, Kilcoyne was doing enough to keep James Cronin at bay in Munster.
McGrath only started against Fiji this month while Kilcoyne has shadowed Healy in five of the previous six test matches since the US-Japan tour last summer.
“Fair play to Joe and the rest of the back room,” he said on Saturday night. “They put a plan in place and we stuck to it.”
No, your remarkable achievement Dave, the loosehead pecking order, what gives?
“Look, I thought my form was quite strong with Munster coming into November. You know, I’ve been knocking down the door for a while and all credit to the coaches they put a lot of faith in me and I am ready to deliver when called upon.”
It’s not about personality, of which Kilcoyne has plenty, it’s about a singular goal, a journey that he desperately wants to remain a part of.
The scrum did go backwards when the Munster props arrived but that seems more down to the loss of Tadhg Furlong, who also made a freakish 17 tackles. Andrew Porter went from an appearance off the Leinster bench on Friday night to the extra man with Ireland. Marty Moore is coming to Belfast to revive his stalled career and perhaps claim the vacant Ulster tight head slot.
Vulnerabilities being addressed. That’s Schmidt’s greatest achievement to date. Ireland have undergone a cultural revolution. They win when they would historically lose. They are hard to slice and package in the video room.
Take Chris Farrell. Not mapped by the public until last weekend against Fiji, Farrell obeyed the promptings of Schmidt to leave Grenoble and join Munster. His deft pass, for which he was obliterated by two Argentineans, for the first Jacob Stockdale try was followed by a rash of heavy contact with and without the ball, before damaging his knee.
“I thought Chris Farrell had a super game,” Schmidt said afterwards. “A really, really super game.”
Of course, Kilcoyne and Farrell are unlikely to travel to Paris for the Six Nations opener on February 3rd. They remain third in the queue for number 1 and 13 once McGrath finds his rhythm and Garry Ringrose returns from double shoulder surgery.
The point is we know they exist.
“Robbie Henshaw was going to play there up until Tuesday when he got a slight hamstring strain,” said Schmidt. “That’s probably what will happen during the Six Nations. It almost happens organically. Because it is so combative you will need to factor in a few changes week to week. I don’t foresee 36 players being given opportunity but . . .”
He names Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Keith Earls and Garry Ringrose.
“They are not too far away so they come back into the mix.”
The evolution of the squad since the midway point in the last World Cup cycle makes for interesting reading. Rob Kearney, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton remain in a radically altered backline. Up front, the pack has plenty of familiar faces in Healy, Rory Best, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien.
“It’s tough to compare. 2013 I was learning probably more than the players. I was trying to work out the differences between test match rugby and provincial rugby. And those very small windows you get to work with players if you are going to work with them
“We lost two out of three then but one of the most impressive 20 minutes I think I’ve seen from any Irish team at any stage allowed us to be 19-0 up against the All Blacks.”
At the time it seemed like another heroic failure. Now it stands as the first road block on a journey that ideally ends with Ireland winning the 2019 World Cup, unless the opposition removes Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton - Argentina did try - but this past month has revealed progress that runs deeper than many imagined.