JOE SCHMIDT SPOKE about developing a squad of 30 to 35 international class players during his tenure but he started eight players in all three Tests.
He had previously coached six of those players at Leinster but Munster [Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls] and Ulster [Craig Gilroy, Iain Henderson] may have featured prominently had it not been for various, frustrating injuries.
While some of Ireland’s old reliables showed glimpses of form, three players who made their international debuts after the Grand Slam success of 2009 were Schmidt’s best performers.
Started the Samoa game on the bench but was called into action after 34 minutes when Chris Henry limped off. He scored a second-half try and showed no signs of the ankle worries that ruled him out of action with Leinster in late October.
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He started against Australia a week later and made 15 carries but the return was paltry — 28 metres. The Wallabies doubled up on O’Brien and his best impact was in defence where he was the joint leading tackler [with Devin Toner and Cian Healy] and he secured two turnovers.
He saved his best for last against New Zealand and outshone both Richie McCaw and Kieran Read in a punishing encounter. Again, the line breaks were fewer than usual but the flanker was required for a stout, desperate defensive effort in the second-half as Ireland swam against an All Black tide. 16 tackles made and often the first man on his feet to rejoin the defensive line.
A broken hand ruled McFadden out of the third Test of the series, against New Zealand, but the Kildare native had fine games against Samoa and Australia. Followed up his summer hat-trick against Canada with a try against the Pacific islanders after nice work from Gordon D’Arcy. Made 60 metres off 12 upfield darts against Samoa and was on hand to profit from Brian O’Driscoll’s scoop pass in the lead-up to O’Brien’s game-breaking try.
McFadden jigs past Joe Tomane of Australia. INPHO/Ryan Byrne
McFadden was the best Irish back on show against Australia and made 132 metres off 15 carries, which included three clean line-breaks. There was a tendency to cut inside and wait for support — where Zebo may live or die by backing himself — but he performed admirably, was an attacking threat and was willing to pitch into rucks. Dave Kearney [two tries off the bench against Samoa] provided ample cover in McFadden’s absence against the All Blacks.
Jack McGrath laid down a fantastic marker against Samoa with a man-of-the-match performance, leaving his senior provincial colleague to give Ireland an attacking scrummaging platform in his 20-minute cameo. Battled gamely against the Australians, made a crucial turnover after Jamie Heaslip had been stepped by Rob Simmons and held up his side of the scrum while Mike Ross struggled. Still, the loose-head will be frustrated that the Wallabies’ setpiece bossed the home side.
Healy stoked the All Blacks before Sunday’s match by revealing his love-hate relationship with the Haka. He needed to back up his choice words and did so with a supreme performance that included a bulldozing run over McCaw:
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He profited against Charlie Faumuina at the scrum, was part of that rabid first-half effort at the breakdown and constantly put his body on the line.
Three honourable mentions go to Peter O’Mahony [best game in a green jersey against Samoa and picked it up again in Sunday's white heat], our undoubted scrum-half for the Six Nations, Conor Murray, and Paddy Jackson, who was assured and creative against Samoa before missing out on squads for the final Tests.
The focus now switches to the Heineken Cup and the festive inter-provincials but Schmidt will be hoping for the return of Munster and Ulster’s injured stars to augment his trusted Leinster lieutenants.
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