Following Ireland’s historic victory over New Zealand two weeks ago in Chicago, Joe Schmidt now has the daunting task of preparing for an All Black onslaught.
With Schmidt having made fifteen changes to his starting line-up for Ireland’s clash with Canada, it was a great opportunity for a number Ireland’s young players and returning stars to put up their hand for selection for the big re-match at the Aviva Stadium.
New Zealand arrive in Dublin with revenge on their minds, making it unlikely that Schmidt will change his starting XV too much from the team that did battle in Chicago. Although following several impressive performances over the past weekend, there are players pushing hard to start against the world champions.
The Connacht tighthead was simply immense over the past weekend – making bone-crunching tackles and carrying the ball strongly into contact. Bealham truly laid down a marker for his front row colleagues to live up to, and Ireland now appear to have great strength in depth in the front row given that Bealham’s athletic prowess and skill level is an area few front-rowers can match.
Bealham’s skills were never more evident than when he delivered a beautifully timed offload to full-back and Connacht team-mate Tiernan O’Halloran, who went the distance to score Ireland’s third try.
Belham had previously been criticized for inconsistency at scrum time, however following a shaky start against the big Canadian pack he bounced back to put in a very impressive performance, highlighted by a penalty try where Bealham got under his opposite number Djustice Sears and drove him up out of the scrum leaving referee Marius van der Westhuizen with no choice but to award a penalty try to Ireland.
Even though the All Black pack will pose an altogether different challenge, there is little doubt that the Australian-born Bealham would front up and deliver an impressive performance for his adopted country if called upon.
The Connacht man was rewarded for an impressive showing against Canada with both a try and the Man of the Match award. Standing at 198cm and having the pace of a back-row, Dillane is one of the new breed of dynamic ball carrying second-rows who pose a huge threat in open play.
With Donnacha Ryan having not put a foot wrong against the All Blacks and the potential return of Iain Henderson to fitness, competition for the number four shirt will be very tight in the build up to Saturday – a headache Schmidt will not mind having. From the outside it would appear as though Ryan would be the odd man out should Schmidt decided to start either of the dynamic duo.
With comparisons being drawn between Dillane and England star Maro Itoje, the French-born Dillane is without doubt a special player. Finding flaws in his game is not easy, however one area that Dillane could look to improve is his ability to pop a pass before taking contact, as was evident in the build up to his try, when instead of passing out to any one of the four unmarked Irish players he decided to back his strength to barge over for a score.
This paid off against the tiring Canadian defence, but it is less likely to be effective against a Tier One nation such as New Zealand or England. This would have been highlighted by the Irish coaching staff during the week, without doubt.
Despite this, and with the All Blacks welcoming back the dynamic duo of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, Ireland would be well served by the tireless work-rate of Dillane who could give the Irish pack the required go-forward from the first minute.
Fresh from making his long-awaited return to the Irish set-up with an impressive performance against a physical Canadian pack. O’Brien was his usual industrious self, causing havoc for the Canadians both with ball in hand and at ruck time. This performance came just in time for the man from Tullow, as following Jordi Murphy’s unfortunate injury in Chicago there is a vacancy in the Irish back row alongside presumed starters CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip.
The back row certainly isn’t an area where Ireland are lacking depth, with both Josh van der Flier and Peter O’Mahony looking very impressive in their recent hit outs. It is difficult though to see Schmidt not starting O’Brien, who brings another dimension to the Irish attack with his ability to not only break the first line of defence but to also offload at the point of contact.
If there is one area that O’Brien does not stack up well against O’Mahony it is at the lineout, with the Munster man being one of Ireland’s top targets when he is in the line-up. With both Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock likely to start, this may be an area that the Irish coaching staff look at.
Ireland enjoyed a significant share of the possession in Chicago, primarily due to their dominance at the lineout, except this time Jerome Kaino is likely to revert to the back row alongside captain Kieran Read and Sam Cane, giving the world champions an abundance of options at the lineout.
Schmidt therefore will have evaluated all of his options and one would believe that O’Brien’s prowess at the breakdown and in open play will see him get the nod ahead of O’Mahony and Van der Flier.
The battle between Earls and Canadian winger DTH Van Der Merwe on the Lansdowne turf was a sight to behold. Earls showed why on his day he is one of the most lethal steppers and finishers in Europe. Earls missed the Chicago clash due to a suspension and both Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble took their chances with impressive performances. Zebo was dangerous with ball in hand whilst Trimble was rock solid in defence.
Earls however appears to be playing on another level this season, with his defensive presence noticeable when he hunted down Van der Merwe following a restart and forced a turnover. With ball in hand, Earls had a combination of power and pace that would serve Ireland well against the All Blacks physical backline.
Schmidt is a stickler for discipline, and Earls will need to focus on keeping his head in the heated situations that are sure to arise on the weekend, especially given he is just coming back from a suspension for a dangerous tip tackle on Glasgow Warriors hooker Fraser Brown during Munster’s emotionally charged Champions Cup clash.
Earls was again at the centre of a scuffle over the weekend. When the referee blew for half-time, Earls could be seen running back towards an altercation amongst the forwards. It is moments like this that could see him miss out on selection.