The wounds are still raw in Ireland. Their 46-14 mauling at the hands of New Zealand took the nation to a grand total of seven quarter-final exits at the World Cup, with a semi-final still as elusive as ever.
There are no two ways of looking at it: it was a thoroughly disheartening performance from a side that had promised so much over the previous cycle and who had twice shown themselves to be able of bettering the reigning world champions. The shots just weren’t fired, though.
The All Blacks swarmed and strangled Ireland from the opening minute and pounced on every one of the multitude of Irish mistakes.
Take nothing away from New Zealand, who were sublime, but Ireland were so far from the races on Saturday that the thunder of hooves and cheers of the crowd were barely carried to them on the wind.
Irish fans will recover. It’s a situation they have faced before and dealt with… and they will be able to instantly re-immerse themselves in the delights of the Guinness PRO14, a competition in which all four of the provinces have started strongly.
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Leinster have made the perfect start with three wins from three, while Connacht, Munster and Ulster all boast two wins from the opening rounds with a number of youngsters and new signings stepping up to the fore in the absence of the established international stars.
For Andy Farrell, though, the rebuild – or at least rejuvenation – of the national team begins now. It was a situation he was not afforded when England moved on from himself, Stuart Lancaster and the other members of the coaching staff in 2015.
He is now set to assume the top job at the IRFU and put his own unique stamp on a team that Schmidt had built in the New Zealander’s image over the past six years.
RugbyPass sifts through the Ireland wreckage following a torrid night in Tokyo, an elimination that was promised would not be repeated after mistakes were identified in 2015https://t.co/VzQ9eGwBIl
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 19, 2019
One man who will be front and centre in the new-look Ireland side that will be assembled over the next four years is Munster fly-half Joey Carbery. The 23-year-old already has 22 caps to his name and is not a new face to the set-up, but he is a player who should take on a much more integral role in the group moving forward.
Many have him slated in as Jonny Sexton’s heir apparent. The veteran playmaker is set to turn 35 next year and Carbery’s move to Munster last year was viewed as the perfect pathway for his development to happen with the Blackrock College graduate out from under Sexton’s shadow and able to nail down the starting ten jersey in the south.
Irish rugby does not lack for burgeoning fly-halves, though. Leinster alone can offer up the Byrne brothers, Ross and Harry, the former of whom is already capped at international level, as well as Ciarán Frawley.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 22, 2019
The Irish-qualified Billy Burns is plying his trade in Ulster alongside Angus Curtis and former Munster starlet Bill Johnston, while another Irish international cap, Jack Carty, is the string-puller at Connacht. Munster themselves even have Tyler Bleyendaal, who has qualified for Ireland on residency, and promising stand-off Ben Healy.
What Irish rugby does not have in quite such abundance, however, is top-level ball-handlers in the back line. Whether partly a symptom of Schmidt’s desired conservative style or a general focus in the country at school and age-grade levels, the pinnacle of Irish rugby is rather direct in its style.
That is not a criticism: with that style having won Ireland plenty of games over the last four years. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the player pool available.
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What Carbery is – perhaps above all other things – is an adept and skilful operator with the ball in his hands, who is capable of seeing space and has the physical ability and technical expertise to exploit it. When deployed at full-back, these skills truly come to the fore.
If we assume that Ireland’s midfield options of Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell all continue to turn out in the green for much of the next cycle, Ireland do not need a strike-runner at full-back.
They need a playmaker who can drift into the back line and make the incisive passes, shift the point of contact and generally link the midfield with the outside threats, where genuine game-changers Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale roam.
In that role, Carbery is clearly the standout option in Irish rugby. He will need to continue to improve his aerial game, one-on-one tackling and positioning in the back field, but he is young, still honing his craft and has plenty of time to make those leaps.
If Farrell and new assistant coach Mike Catt were to tinker with that relatively direct midfield and potentially explore the options of Sam Arnold and Will Addison, then you could argue that continuing with a strike-running full-back in the Rob Kearney mould could be the right move. If they don’t, more creativity is needed outside of the midfield.
Those ball-handling 12s and 15s that a number of nations covet so highly seem to have, more or less, passed Ireland by at the age-grade level. For years and years, New Zealand have taken fly-halves and plugged them in at full-back and inside centre at under-18 and under-20 levels.
Then England started copying them. A year or two later and South Africa had jumped on the bandwagon, too. It is something which has benefitted all three nations’ player pools in terms of the ability of their back lines to handle the ball, manipulate space and execute under pressure.
Maybe the tide is beginning to turn in Ireland, too, where traditional fly-half Jake Flannery was used at full-back to profound effect by the Ireland under-20 team last season. He looks to have a bright future and if Beauden Barrett’s move to full-back at international level over the last few months with the Akll Blacks has shown us anything, it’s that those two positions are perhaps more easily transitioned between than general perception suggests while also accounting for Barrett’s undoubted position-less ability.
While plenthy of people seem keen to ordain Carbery as the next star Irish fly-half, especially given the premium there is on finding and building around a player at that position, there is scope for him to a greater positive effect on Irish rugby at full-back.
Ireland promised after 2015 they would not be caught winging it at the 2019 RWC with an inexperienced out-half starting at No10 in a big match in place of Johnny Sexton, but they have not delivered on that aim https://t.co/Y2QThUAiJW
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 27, 2019
The game at the international level is changing. It’s not as open as the club game – and may never be – but it is moving much more in that direction. If you can’t find ways to create space and score tries, you’re probably going to lose the game.
Who still wins a game because of a dominant scrum? It’s a nice asset to have, certainly, but it is not as decisive as it used to be when the sort of lines run and athleticism that Kyle Sinckler showcased on Saturday against Australia is setting a new benchmark on front row influence in the loose.
We have focused on what Carbery can bring to the back line for Ireland and that need for one or two more ball-handlers away from the half-backs, but it is something which extends to the forward pack, too, where Farrell is potentially going to have to make some tough decisions.
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Rory Best has played his last game for Ireland and, at 33, Sean Cronin could be in a similar boat. The abundance of talent on the loosehead, something which helped propel Andrew Porter towards a tighthead transition, is beginning to age.
The back row, which despite excelling in a number of different areas, is not the most gifted with ball in hand, especially with Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip having moved on in recent years and Jack Conan facing a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Leinster hooker Ronan Kelleher is already beginning to knock on the door and Dylan Tierney-Martin at Connacht is another to watch, while loosehead Josh Wycherley could be the long-term solution on their left.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 19, 2019
The Leinster back row trio of Caelan Doris, Scott Penny and Dan Leavy also promise exciting skill sets, so there are players there coming through the ranks who could potentially provide a bit more attacking ambition moving forward.
That said, this is Farrell’s team now. It’s on him how he chooses to build the squad and add to the foundations that Schmidt has left in place. Foundations that have served Ireland relatively well outside of World Cups.
He is set to lose a handful of key contributors to retirement, though the core of the Irish squad will remain. He is in a position of strength to build upon Schmidt’s work and in Carbery, he has a player capable of adding some much-needed versatility and attacking creativity to the Irish back line.
WATCH: Former Ireland international Stephen Ferris sits down with RugbyPass in this episode of Rugby World Cup Memories
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