From Ringrose to Henderson: Rating every player in Ireland's squad at the Rugby World Cup
As long as Ireland continue to stutter and stumble their way through this World Cup, the greater the risk that a genuinely good group of players will allow their moment to pass them by.
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Given how well this team performed last year, they are inevitably going to be judged by the same high standards.
So, when they not only dip below them, but also rekindle the wildly inconsistent form that you don’t necessarily associate with Joe Schmidt’s teams, then questions are entitled to be asked.
The head coach has copped a fair bit of flak from certain quarters for not developing his game-plan enough after sweeping all before them in 2018.
The warning signs had been there throughout this year’s Six Nations, however, and into the thumping warm-up defeat to England before Japan inflicted the worst defeat of Schmidt’s era.
For all of the finger-pointing that has been done at the coaching staff, when it comes down to it, the players are the ones who must shoulder the majority of the blame.
After all, this is their time to shine. Too many Ireland teams have buckled under the pressure of playing at a World Cup and Schmidt’s men are teetering perilously close to doing the same. The good news for them is that their destiny remains firmly in their own hands and, on their day, they are still well capable of beating the All Blacks or the Springboks in a potential quarter-final.
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For that to happen, a lot of things will have to work in their favour, yet it all starts with the players fronting up and rediscovering the kind of consistent performances that had seen them climb to the top of the world rankings.
Too many of them have retreated into their shells at various stages over the opening three games in Japan. Too often, they have looked to be gripped by fear, which is frustrating given the talent Schmidt has at his disposal.
"Players will always take responsibility because the times that we’ve done the game-plan to the best of our ability, we’ve won I think every time," Johnny Sexton told us this week.
Yesterday, it was the turn of Rory Best to set the tone. The captain spoke well and didn’t seem to be reading from a preordained message. Instead, he gave an honest appraisal of where his side are at right now. Others could learn from that kind of approach.
Throughout the World Cup, the players and coaches have talked a good game but haven’t backed it up on the pitch.
It begs the question: how much is driven by the players and how much comes from Schmidt?
"I think it’s a combination of both,” Best suggests. “Over the years, we’ve got that balance pretty well and I think when it comes to the mistakes against Japan and the way we allowed them to dictate the next moment, that falls on us.
"That’s not a game-plan issue, that’s not a preparation issue, that’s us for whatever reason being a little bit mentally off. We’ve chatted a bit about it and we’ve chatted about how we can be better and how we need to be better."
And therein lies the problem. Too many of the Ireland players need to be better, but haven’t been. Here, we take a look at how each squad member has fared across the first three games . . .
Honours: Garry Ringrose, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Andrew Conway and Dave Kilcoyne
Perhaps it has not been a coincidence that Ringrose has played the most minutes in Japan and has been Ireland’s best player. The classy centre has been a constant threat with ball in hand and has reminded everyone of his ability.
No one has been surprised by how Ryan has taken to his first World Cup, and the best thing about the Leinster lock is that there is still much more to come.
Whenever Ruddock puts together an injury-free run, he reminds everyone of his quality. The flanker is in the middle of one of those runs right now as he continues to push hard for a spot in the first-choice XV.
The reason why Schmidt regularly selects Conway is because, invariably, he comes up with the goods. A try in each of his World Cup starts has underlined his quality as his form becomes increasingly difficult to ignore. Kilcoyne has provided Ireland with a much-needed punch and has regularly gotten over the gain-line with his powerful carrying.
Pass: Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Tadhg Beirne, Sean Cronin, John Ryan, Andrew Porter, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Jordan Larmour, Luke McGrath, Jack Carty, Chris Farrell
Ireland must find a way to use Furlong in open play, while Best needs to ensure that he nails his lineout throwing. Healy still has more left in the tank and needs to unleash it before it’s too late.
Stander’s ball-carrying cannot be questioned but he must add more subtleties to his game and bring in those around him, including Van der Flier who can offer more in attack.
Beirne looks to have won Schmidt’s trust but the same cannot be said for Cronin who still seems to be struggling in that regard. Porter has the edge over Ryan for the back-up tighthead spot.
Sexton’s 40 minutes against Russia underlined his importance. If Ireland have any hope, their talisman must be fit and firing. Kearney has rediscovered his try-scoring touch; now only if he could pass it on to Stockdale, Earls and Larmour who are yet to get off the mark but have threatened.
McGrath and Carty have made the most of their opportunities while Farrell will be eager to return from injury next weekend.
Must do better: Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Iain Henderson, Bundee Aki, Jean Kleyn, Niall Scannell
O’Mahony has been caught on the wrong side of the referees far too often in Japan and is now feeling the heat for his starting spot. Aki began superbly against Scotland but made several uncharacteristic handling errors in the scrappy win over Russia.
Murray is still trying to rediscover the kind of consistent form that had people talking about him as the best scrum-half in the world.
If Murray can manage to find it over the coming weeks and if Sexton is fit, Ireland have a chance.
Henderson was outstanding in the opener but floated in and out of the game in Shizuoka. There is no doubting his quality but we need to see it on a more regular basis. The decision to leave Devin Toner at home increasingly looks like the wrong one. Kleyn failed to make any meaningful impact against Russia, which doesn’t bode well for the tougher tasks ahead.
Scannell had the chance to force the issue again but the Munster hooker just cannot apply enough pressure when it matters most.
N/A: Robbie Henshaw, Joey Carbery, Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy
It was a calculated risk to keep Henshaw in the squad after he picked up a hamstring injury in week one, but the Athlone native is ready to repay that faith against Samoa next weekend.
Conan could have played a key role at this World Cup only for a foot injury cruelly ending those hopes.
Not fully fit when he boarded the plane, Carbery was not able to turn to game against Japan and looked off the pace. Question marks remain over his fitness.
No sooner had Murphy touched down in Japan when he picked up a rib injury to ensure that the back-row curse continued.
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