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Tour gives Schmidt a chance to look at likes of Gilroy

By Tony Ward

All rational evidence ahead of the chariot's arrival pointed to one logical outcome. Oh, we have little faith.

Yes, I've been in that dressing room on a number of occasions with the English down the corridor and I do know what that means. But even by 'auld enemy' standards this was special.

Factor in the last-minute changes which did make us a more balanced unit. That was always set to be the case and while I am not suggesting the last-minute switch was premeditated, as I have no evidence to that effect, I am in no doubt that such an inevitability would have been covered by Joe Schmidt in the lead-in to Saturday's must-win game.

Must-win not because there was a Grand Slam, Championship or Triple Crown on the line and not because it was England per se but, dependent on results elsewhere, there was the possibility of finishing second in the Six Nations and the financial ramifications that entails and the opportunity to finish in the top four of the World Rugby rankings ahead of the 2019 draw in two months' time.

In that and in so many other ways this was a massive win and a massive boost for Irish rugby. It was also an important win for the head coach, not that he had to justify the way he goes about his business but three defeats out of five would have had fingers of blame pointing in one direction.

It is a result-driven business and he is not above reproach. Such is the nature of the gig and he knows it. I am delighted for him, for his backroom staff and more than anything for every player involved in this campaign. On Saturday we got a full 80-minute performance reminiscent of New Zealand and Australia last November.

We have still to crack the art of consistency with the Scottish and Welsh games in need of little elaboration. The English match was a reminder of that special day in November in Soldier Field but the ability to deliver against the two best teams in the world both going for a record 19 straight wins against Tier One countries sets the standard of which we are capable but failed to deliver twice in this campaign.

Collective inconsistency and a lack of potency and pace in the back three are the major areas of concern. The upcoming tour to the United States and Japan provides a window of opportunity and I would like to think that players with raw potential, specifically the likes of Adam Byrne, Darren Sweetnam, Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun, Ulster's Craig Gilroy, possibly Jordan Larmour too (think Gordon D'Arcy when just out of school) might be added to the mix.

If it means providing a summer recess for certain players not selected for New Zealand with the Lions then why not? Winning the Test series in Japan matters but adding to the pool for November even more. And I would like to think that we have the resources to win in the summer regardless. What an opportunity to trial Tiernan O'Halloran, Joey Carbery or indeed the said Larmour at full-back in the Test arena.

Like any coach, Schmidt is accused of being conservative at times but I get that. Trust between player and mentor is the fundamental building block for success at any level but most particularly at the very top.

Schmidt used 31 players in this Six Nations, including relative rookies in Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Kieran Marmion, James Tracy, Dan Leavy, Andrew Conway, Luke McGrath and Ian Keatley.

To see Marmion take up from Conor Murray in the manner he did and then for Luke McGrath to do the same (that kick to the corner alone was worth a seven-pointer and closed the game out) was encouraging in the extreme and testimony to the work going on behind the scenes at Carton House, not to mention at the Sportsground and Belfield.

Bear in mind we lost our 8/9/10 axis - the hub of the team - at various times over the six weeks yet CJ Stander, and by extension captain-in-waiting Peter O'Mahony, Marmion, McGrath and Paddy Jackson, stepped in seamlessly. O'Mahony's lineout steal and McGrath's kick in that final quarter will live long in the memory.

As for possible Irish Lions? Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Murray, Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Donnacha Ryan, Stander, Sean O'Brien, Cian Healy and O'Mahony are in the frame. Best was inspirational, although I expect Sam Warburton to be captain. Rugby for the purists perhaps but what a win.

Belfast Telegraph

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