Ireland wrap up World Cup preparations as Schmidt and Best say goodbye to Aviva
By Daire Walsh
JOE Schmidt and Rory Best received fitting Aviva Stadium send-offs on Saturday afternoon as Ireland defeated Wales for a second consecutive weekend in the Guinness Summer Series.
In the final home international for both head coach and team captain – as well as departing scrum specialist Greg Feek – the Green Army turned around a three-point interval deficit to claim a deserved 19-10 triumph. Following a deadlock-breaking try for Leinster full-back Rob Kearney, his provincial team-mates Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan subsequently crossed over on the resumption.
In addition to giving them a third warm-up victory in just four games, it also propelled Ireland to the top of the world rankings heading into the Rugby World Cup finals. While Schmidt acknowledged his native New Zealand remain the favourites for the tournament, it nevertheless is testament to the evolution of the squad over the course of his six years in charge.
Following the morale-boost of a win at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, the announcement of Schmidt’s 31-man selection for the tournament sparked considerable debate in the days leading up to Saturday’s test. Initially viewed as a dead cert to make the cut, the towering Devin Toner was a shock omission when Schmidt unveiled his squad last Monday week.
The presence of Jean Kleyn re-opened the thorny issue of ‘project players’, though it is simplistic to boil it down to a battle between the Munster man and Toner for a single second-row spot.
Kleyn’s ability to operate as a tighthead lock meant he was always likely to make it – even if his Leinster counterpart avoided the chop.
Given Rhys Ruddock and Eadestown’s Tadhg Beirne can cover the second-row and back-row departments, it could be argued that Schmidt has opted for their versatility instead of the 33-year-old Toner.
Nevertheless, with Ireland anticipating a long campaign, the potential of injuries could yet see the Meath men featuring in South Asia.
As regards the game at the weekend, Ireland’s bench power proved decisive in swinging the outcome during the second period of the contest. Dave Kilcoyne deputised for Cian Healy on the resumption, before eventually being joined by Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter in the front-row.
Iain Henderson and Rhys Ruddock also added considerably to the Irish pack, while Garry Ringrose, Jack Carty and Luke McGrath provided fresh impetus to the back-line.
A World Cup opener against Scotland awaits them on September 22 in Yokohama and Ireland will need to hit the ground running if they have designs on challenging for top honours at the tournament.
Athy native Joey Carbery has been included alongside Beirne in the World Cup squad and is already on the road to recovery from an ankle injury sustained in the warm-up win over Italy on August 10.
Meanwhile, Templeville Road on Dublin’s southside will be the destination for Kildare natives Meabh O’Brien and Jenny Murphy next Saturday afternoon as Leinster face Ulster in the semi-final of the Women’s Interprovincial Championship.