Joe Schmidt’s Ireland make boldest statement on opening weekend | Andy Bull


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Authors: Rio Sports

A lot of stiff, sore bodies will be hauled into team meetings this Monday, as the coaches run their weekend debriefings after the first full round of the autumn internationals. The Irish will be feeling that much better about themselves than everyone else. Nothing soothes a player’s aches and pains quite like a famous victory, and their 38-3 win against South Africa was a resounding result, the statement performance of the weekend. The only time a European team have beaten South Africa by more than that was when England hammered them 53-3 in 2002. That was back when the side that went on to win the World Cup was in its pomp, and the Springboks played most of the game with 14 men because Jannes Labuschagne had been sent off.

Like everyone else, Ireland are using this autumn series to fold some new players into the team as they look to build their strength in depth before the 2019 World Cup. Joe Schmidt seemed a little anxious about it before the match. “It’s a new group,” he said, “and an opportunity to mix those guys and hopefully get as much cohesion as we can in a short period of time.” He need not have fretted. Ireland looked a little rusty at first, and made a few too many errors when they had the ball in hand, but they came together as the game wore on. And in those last 10 minutes, when they scored three fine tries, they were positively purring along, looking formidably good.

South Africa’s failure to deal with Ireland’s kicking game was predictable enough, since their head coach, Allister Coetzee, spoke about how worried he was for his inexperienced back three before the match. But it was a surprise to see the Springboks get bullied in the scrums, lineouts and breakdowns, where they still seemed to be adjusting to the new laws. Ireland were ranked fourth in the world at the start of the week, two spots back from England, but going on the weekend’s showing, on top of their victory against England last March, they look the best side in Europe right now, and a match for anyone when they are playing at home.

As for England, you guess Eddie Jones’s real feelings about the victory over Argentina were the curses he let fly at his side during the match – “how fucking stupid are we?” – rather than the bromides he offered up to the press after it. Jones said himself that his new midfield combination of George Ford, Henry Slade, and Jonathan Joseph just didn’t catch light. And apart from the bullocking runs of Nathan Hughes, who had a barnstorming game at No8, England just didn’t seem to break the gainline often enough to get any momentum into their attacks, at least until Alex Lozowski came off the bench, and gave some thrust to that backline.

Jones was not the only one feeling frustrated. For the first time in a long time, the Twickenham crowd turned on their team, and there were a lot of exasperated fans shouting out in frustration. Like Schmidt, Jones is trying to bring fringe players through so that he has two or three men competing for every position, but right now it feels like the intense focus and understanding the team had during their run of 18 wins in a row is beginning to dissipate. Jones will surely bring Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje back into the team for Saturday’s match against Australia, to get the side up and running in earnest again.

Over in Wales, meanwhile, Warren Gatland’s plans seem to be even more ambitious. Sam Warburton, who was commentating for the BBC, said Saturday’s match was “the biggest change he’s seen” to the team since he joined it.

Gatland and Rob Howley want to overhaul the way Wales play. The key difference is that they’ve brought in Owen Williams as a second playmaker at inside centre. Williams and Dan Biggar kept switching with each other at first receiver, a tactic Gatland hasn’t really used since he had James Hook and Gavin Henson playing together way back in 2008.

It worked well in patches, like when Williams and Biggar whipped the ball across field with a series of flat, flittering passes to set up a three-on-one overlap for Steff Evans’s try. But Wales looked even rustier than England did earlier in the afternoon, and made too many costly mistakes against an Australian side sharply honed by recent victories against the All Blacks and Japan. You guess the Welsh are going to get a stiff dressing down from Shaun Edwards over the way they defended, as will the Scots from Matt Taylor. At least all those missed tackles made for a couple of entertaining matches.

Still, if they are going to commit to playing this way, the Welsh have more room to improve than any other side in Europe, except, perhaps, the French, who showed a few glimpses of the good stuff in the second half of their defeat to New Zealand. Two years out from the World Cup, the competition is already hotting up.

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