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Ireland's focus switches to who’ll be on plane to World Cup

By Jonathan Bradley

Three Six Nations titles in five years, a first ever win on South African soil, a historic maiden triumph over the All Blacks and now the ending of a near four-decade wait for a series victory Down Under.

Is it any wonder the IRFU are so keen to keep Joe Schmidt around beyond the end of his current contract and the 2019 World Cup?

Building upon the momentum garnered by an unbeaten November and a Six Nations Grand Slam was always going to be a tall order, even more so having lost their captain on the eve of the tour and then the first Test.

Only four sides in top tier history had ever dropped the opener of a three-game series and gone on to claim victory, the last of them the Lions in 1989, but this well-oiled Irish machine is one that is formed in its coach’s own image.

Gone is the old “give it a lash” attitude and moral victories, this is a team that now expects to win whenever it takes the field, and has done so on all but one occasion since mid-March 2017.

After the end of the nail-biting conclusion of this pulsating series in Sydney, Schmidt said it ranked right up there with any of his past achievements as Ireland coach, and while it is hard to compare anything to a Grand Slam, there is little denying that this will be seen as the perfect preparation for the holy grail in Japan next year. Ireland have just nine Tests between now and the first warm-up for the World Cup.

For all Schmidt has achieved in this part of the world, the tournament is undoubtedly the one achievement that has proved elusive. Having overcome France in the Millennium Stadium in 2015, he seemed set to break the quarter-final hoodoo when favoured against Argentina.

But the losses of Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Jared Payne, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, a third of his team, before the last-eight tie saw Ireland fall at the familiar hurdle.

It was an experience the coach seemed to find instructive, frequently harking back to it since. The net result has been an attempt to widen his playing pool ahead of next autumn, even if there is still a feeling that the side will go as far as their half-back combo of Sexton and Conor Murray can take them.

While it must be noted that the same was said in 2015, Ireland have never had a better chance of making the last-four for the first time and, as the undisputed second best side in the world, perhaps even further.

Hosts Japan will be a tougher prospect than imagined by some, and Scotland have been impressive if inconsistent under Gregor Townsend. But it's still a pool that Ireland should win.

A potential quarter-final against a seemingly resurgent South Africa would be a huge test of the side’s mettle but, for Schmidt’s Ireland, so many glass ceilings have already been shattered.

In his mind the coach will have a fair idea of a large portion of the squad he intends to take to the far east, but with this most memorable of seasons now at an end, the next will be dominated by talk of who is or isn’t making the plane in September of next year.

In that regard, what was already a fascinating series over the past three weeks contained an extra layer of intrigue. With so few chances to impress between now and Japan, this was a real opportunity to lay down a marker.

One man who did just that was Ulster’s Rob Herring, who in the course of three weeks won as many caps as he had in the previous four years. There had been a feeling that Rory Best’s Ulster understudy wasn’t quite getting the recognition he deserved outside of the province since making his Irish debut against Argentina in 2014. 

But having forced his way back into the international reckoning in November, he impressed whenever called upon in Australia.

In the first Test defeat, he put in an all-action display and showed his well rounded game, while when coming off the bench the next two weeks he was quick to put his shoulder to the defensive wheel.

Now 28-years-old, he is one man who will start his summer holidays believing he’s done his chances of a World Cup spot no harm at all, even if hooker seems to be a competitive area at present.

Niall Scannell did well on tour too having not even been in the initial squad, while Sean Cronin’s hamstring injury scuppered any chance he had of reasserting himself on Saturday.

While Munster’s Rhys Marshall doesn’t qualify for Ireland until 2019, with skipper Best to come back in, four into three spots won’t go and you can throw James Tracy into that mix too.

On the other side of the coin, John Cooney will again likely feel he didn’t get a chance to show what he can do in a green jersey.

Having swept the board when it came to individual awards in his first season at Ulster, he travelled to Australia with real momentum behind him but was handed only a couple of minutes off the bench in the second Test, his two caps to date totalling in the region of 10 minutes.

Schmidt’s tendency to get every last drop he can out of Murray is nothing new, and it seems now that the adopted Ulsterman’s only chance of extended minutes was if the Sydney game was to have been a dead rubber.

Elsewhere, Ulster-bound Jordi Murphy saved his best outing for the decider and will hope that more game time next campaign can see him keep his place in the panel despite the returns of Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier.

Plenty of water to pass under the bridge before then of course. For now, at the end of a hugely successful but long season, a rare chance for Ireland’s heroes to get some rest.

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