Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt hailed the impact of man-of-the-match Andrew Conway and a number of other players in Saturday night’s 57-14 victory over the USA at the Aviva Stadium.
After enduring a testing opening 20 minutes against the in-form Eagles, Joe Schmidt was delighted to see Andrew Conway cut loose in the final game of the GUINNESS Series which saw Ireland finish the November window with four wins out of four.
The jet-heeled Munster winger finished with a well-taken hat-trick of tries – including a second-minute opener set up by captain Rhys Ruddock – and the New Zealander felt it was just reward for Conway’s impressive work-rate throughout the 80 minutes.
“You (the USA) don’t beat Scotland and not having something in the locker. You don’t beat Samoa and not have something in the locker. We knew it was going to be tough,” admitted Schmidt afterwards. “It wasn’t a surprise. It was just a frustration that we never really broke the shackles. 24-14 at half-time, we felt we had a little bit of separation on the scoreboard by then.
“To get that first try, I thought Rhys did a super job running in open space and using good footwork. He found Andrew Conway, who was looking for the ball all night. There’s a few times where he didn’t get it, where I think if we’d managed to get it to him he could have potentially got more than the three tries that he did get.”
Following an historic home triumph over the All Blacks, Schmidt made 14 changes to his starting XV for the visit of Gary Gold’s USA side to Dublin, centre Garry Ringrose being the sole survivor. The Ireland boss was ‘really pleased’ to see his much-changed team see off the powerful Americans.
“The US are very physical, they’re a very big side. Guys like (Titi) Lamositele and (Joe) Taufete’e. Those guys up front, they’re very big men. When you’re bringing guys like Samu Manoa off the bench and big Cam Dolan off the base of the scrum, he’s a big man. Then you get to the backs and they don’t get too much smaller.
“Paul Lasike is about 116kg. There’s certainly some lads who know they’ve been in a game, but I felt when we got the game to a certain tempo, it did allow us to find a bit of space. We didn’t always capitalise on it which was frustrating, but then the second half I thought we capitalised on a few open running opportunities and that allowed us to accumulate what we did on the scoreboard.”
What makes Ireland’s four-match winning run in November all the more impressive is the fact they had to contend with a number of injury disruptions. In addition to Conor Murray’s injury-enforced absence which ended yesterday in Munster’s bonus point win at Zebre, Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy were both forced out of the Argentina and New Zealand Tests.
There were also some injury concerns arising from Saturday’s series finale with Darren Sweetnam (back), Will Addison (HIA) and Jack Conan (shoulder) all taken off. Sweetnam’s withdrawal in the 26th minute led to a rejigged Irish back-line with Ross Byrne slotting in at out-half, Joey Carbery moving to full-back and Addison redeployed to the left wing.
While acknowledging the disappointment at losing Sweetnam so early into the contest, Schmidt believes it offered an ideal opportunity to see Byrne’s progress during a longer-than-expected home debut. “Darren’s back tightened. He was struggled to run and and if you look at the six or seven minutes before he came off, he was really struggling. He’s tough Darren and he tried to play on, but he was pretty uncomfortable,” he explained.
“When you’re in that situation, we thought about giving Ross a decent amount of game-time tonight anyway, so the way it worked out, Joey’s versatility is already really well known and so we were able to move things around. Then Sam Arnold made his Test debut on the wing, he got a couple of really positive involvements.
“I know some people thought that we might start Ross and so it was pretty tough on Ross. He wants to actually get in the driver’s seat and grab an opportunity from the start of a game. He wasn’t too far away from the start when he got on.”
With just 31 places up for grabs in Ireland’s 2019 Rugby World Cup squad, an already ferocious competition for places will intensify in the new year. Ahead of next spring’s Six Nations, Schmidt admitted that he has welcome headaches when it comes to team and squad selection.
“I think they’re across the board. We already knew we had selection headaches in the back row and they haven’t changed. I thought Rhys was really good tonight, I thought Jack Conan got more and more into the game as it went on. Jordi Murphy, he’s a great link player for us, as well as a multi-purpose player.
“On top of that you’ve got Pete (O’Mahony), who was outstanding last week. CJ (Stander), he just hits numbers that maybe only James Ryan can match. On the other side, Dan Leavy didn’t play. Sean O’Brien was out with an injury. They’re going to be selection headaches of the best sort.
“Second row is complicated. Front row is a little bit complicated as well. The back-line, we’ll potentially have a few guys back. Great to see Chris Farrell coming back. Sammy made his debut. Stuart McCloskey got through 80 minutes tonight. It’s perfect for us, but it’s never going to be perfect when it comes to that match (the Six Nations opener with England). Because you’re always going to be missing someone.”
Reflecting on the effort across the four November matches by those on the pitch and off it, Schmidt added: “It’s never well oiled but it’s a machine. I’m a small cog in a machine. I’m so confident that we have such a great group, whether it’s logistics staff or analysis staff or medical staff. The last month has been a huge collective effort.
“We’ve worked really hard. We got a little bit behind time this week just because if you don’t kinda celebrate small windows where you’ve achieved something that you haven’t done before then you’re probably not human. So we’ve got to factor that human side in.
“So we didn’t assemble until Monday lunchtime, and then we didn’t actually train until Tuesday and Thursday and they were a new bunch. But to be fair to Rhys and Iain Henderson and Garry Ringrose who led the team this evening, they’re a huge credit to themselves and to the group because I thought they got everyone gelled very quickly.
“I know the first 20 or 30 minutes weren’t the really snappy start that we would’ve loved to have got. But we were probably expecting the start we got because, against a big opposition, it was always going to be a little bit fractured in how we tried to deliver what we were looking to do.”