The Aki midfield puzzle, Sexton's double omen and restrained quarter-final expectation as Ireland head to Tokyo
Samoa were viewed as a potential banana skin for Ireland in their final Pool A pool match, but that anxiety was misplaced as Joe Schmidt’s side made light work of the Islanders even though they had to play 51 minutes of the match a man down due to Bundee Aki’s red card.
The Samoans were one of the poorest sides at the 20-team tournament, their efforts corrupted by frequent indiscipline.
They signed off from Japan having conceded an onerous 50 penalties in four matches, seven yellow cards and one red. No wonder they never threaten to be a problem to the pool’s leading three sides.
Their plight, though, will be of no concern to Ireland as they head back to Tokyo after a trip south from Yokohama that included stopping off points in Shizuoka, Kobe and Fukuoka.
The Irish are back in the quarter-finals and while they have only progressed as a runner-up and not as the pool winner they were expected to be, they arrive into this latest last-eight appearance in a far better state of health than four years ago when they were pool winners decimated by injuries.
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The jury is still out on the reliability of their current rugby, though. Their 2019 form simply hasn’t been anywhere near the stellar heights of 2018. But they will be relieved they will likely deal from a full deck with the potentially suspended Aki the only player of their 31 unavailable for selection to face New Zealand on Saturday.
Aki’s red creates midfield puzzle
Bundee Aki’s chances of beating the red card rap on Monday in Tokyo following his sending-off in Fukuoka appear very slim if the pattern of disciplinary hearings at the World Cup are anything to go by.
All five players previously handed a straight red card – four high tackles and one tip tackle – were handed suspensions that had a six-week entry point. Four were reduced by 50 per cent to a three-week punishment, with the suspension for Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini set at four.
This was more like it from Ireland with some of their key players performing excellently in making light work of Samoa and the blow that was Bundee Aki's red card https://t.co/GQ4gQCBhQr
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 12, 2019
Aki’s likely absence will leave Joe Schmidt with a midfield riddle to solve. Ever since he became eligible under the three-year residency rule to play for Ireland, Aki – red-carded by Nic Berry who previously red-carded USA’s John Quill versus England – has been a mainstay in the starting XV.
Farrell would appear to be next in line for the 12 slot, having formed a partnership with Garry Ringrose in the defeat to Japan at the World Cup and for the August warm-up versus Italy.
However, with Henshaw, the regular pre-Aki era No12 selection, now back in harness following injury, there is every chance he will assume Aki’s role and link up with either Farrell or Ringrose wearing the 13 jersey.
The curveball, though, was how rusty Henshaw looked versus Samoa at 13, his struggles capped by his wayward pass being the cause for possession being lost in the lead-up to Aki’s carded high tackle on Ulupano Seuteni.
The legendary Brian O’Driscoll’s favoured Ireland midfield – even when Aki has been available – is Henshaw/Ringrose. ‘The partnership for me is – if both players are fit – Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw,” he told RugbyPass before the World Cup.
“It’s partly because of their understanding of playing together provincially as well (at Leinster)…Robbie and Garry are the starting partnership, all things being equal.”
With New Zealand in Ireland’s sights, it could well be time to reprise a centre partnership that has been mothballed at Test level.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 13, 2019
Sexton’s double has precedent to be repeated
Johnny Sexton scoring tries for Ireland is a rare sight. Before Saturday’s double, the outhalf talisman had scored just two tries in his last 42 Test matches under Joe Schmidt, a barren run stretching back to a try in the opening 2014 June tour match versus Argentina in Resistencia.
Encouragingly, though, there is a precedent that his double in Fukuoka could be immediately backed up. When he scored twice versus Italy in Dublin in March 2014, he popped up the following week in Paris to grab another pair of tries and help Ireland clinch the Six Nations title win a win over France.
Pack’s ball carrying still needs improvement
Ball carrying by the pack is the golden currency regarding the potency of this Irish side. It was the shortcoming that devastatingly let them down in defeat to Japan, their starting eight managing just 63 metres off 53 carries. That was far too little.
Fielding a pack where the only change was Tadhg Beirne starting at blindside for Peter O’Mahony, they collectively managed 93 metres off 78 carries versus Samoa with tighthead Tadhg Furlong standing out with his 27 metres from seven carries.
Ireland, though, were still some way short of the peak aggressiveness that was achieved in the win 11 months ago versus New Zealand. That auspicious victory featured a 148-metre gain off 84 carries, the sort of eye-bulging numbers likely be required if World Cup history is to be made next weekend in Tokyo.
Look what might happen when it’s least expected
Boom or bust are the traditional emotions associated with Irish rugby, with the middle ground of a more balanced perspective all too often ignored. Look at this 2019 campaign.
Seemingly, heaps of money was backed on Ireland to win the World Cup following their comprehensive first match dismissal of Scotland, emotions that quickly visited the opposite end of the spectrum six days later when Ireland were ambushed by Japan to spark fears they would fail to make the quarter-finals.
Now they are safely qualified on the back of Saturday’s trouncing of Samoa, they are preparing for a knock stage match that intriguingly won’t be accompanied by the unsettling, giddy level of optimism that existed in 2011 and 2015.
When Ireland got to the quarter-finals four and eight years ago on the back of respective impressive round four pool wins over Italy in Dunedin and France in Cardiff, there was huge expectation that Wales and Argentina would also be brushed aside and Ireland would qualify for the semi-finals.
Those hopes were entirely misplaced, Ireland failing to live up to the favourites tag which is why next Saturday’s billing as underdogs versus defending champions New Zealand could perhaps work in their favour.
Ireland aren’t expected to win… which is the very reason why they could actually go on and win.
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The difference an accurate lineout makes
Ireland’s lineout accuracy is a constant source of interest. When it goes wrong, it has the capacity to seriously hinder them but when it is on the money, it is a vehicle that can generate invaluable momentum, particularly at the maul.
A clean sheet with 16 throws in Fukuoka augurs well for the quarter-finals, especially the variety in the jumpers used by Rory Best off his 10 throws and Niall Scannell off his six. Iain Henderson fetched seven, Tadhg Beirne three, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony two each, with CJ Stander and Jean Kleyn catching one apiece.
That should help keep the Kiwis busy in the analysis room in the coming days.
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