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Saturday 16 December 2017

Brent Pope: Iain Henderson and Sean O'Brien provide only boost for Schmidt ahead of Rome

Iain Henderson, Ireland Wolfhounds, is tackled by Henry Slade, England Saxons
Iain Henderson, Ireland Wolfhounds, is tackled by Henry Slade, England Saxons

And to think the night started so well. The snow cleared up to produce a cold but perfect night for rugby in Cork, as the City welcomed their first big international game to the newly revamped Independent Park.

Irish coach Joe Schmidt indicated that this game was one in which the fringe players should take the opportunity to say "pick me." The omens were good, we had a strong Irish team on paper with three Irish Lions and one uncapped player in young Leinster No 8 Jack Conan.

The night would also see the highly anticipated return of the "Tullow Tank" Sean O'Brien. We even had a group of drummers hyping up the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, that's where the entertainment ended. Joe Schmidt will be delighted with the positive energy and contribution of O'Brien. Despite not playing a serious match in over a year, O'Brien showed no ill-effects of the shoulder injury that many feared might prematurely end his career.

He made some strong charges with ball in hand, threw himself into the tackle and even managed to steal some of the Saxons' ground ball with his powerful, low-slung body position.

By 50 minutes the Tank was understandably empty, but he had done enough to indicate that he will definitely play some part in this Six Nations campaign.

It should not be in Rome, however. He needs more game time. I also doubt that Schmidt will risk a player so key to Irelands tilt at the upcoming World Cup.

O'Brien apart, the heavier, long-haired incarnation of Iain Henderson (pictured) continued his upward trajectory. Last week for Ulster against Leicester in the European Cup Henderson, despite a lack of game time, was tremendous, leading the carries and the tackles.

OUTSTANDING

In Cork he was Ireland's outstanding player by some way. With an injury crisis of second rows, Henderson could well find himself on the bench in Rome, especially since he is equally effective at blindside flanker.

There were also negatives for the Irish coach to ponder. The Saxons had only come together as a group a few days earlier, they also had a misfiring lineout and a hooker that couldn't throw or even strike the ball at scrum-time yet they still found soft yardage.

England's ball-carriers led by the aging No 8 Thomas Waldron seemed to get well over the gain line with most of their carries, and as a unit their backline was far more dynamic, even though Ireland had two Lions in Keith Earls and Gordan D'Arcy.

Ireland's 9-10 axis just did not work on the night. Young scrumhalf Kieran Marmion was not given the protection around rucks that he needed while Leinster out-half Ian Madigan simply tried to force the game too much and too often.

Ireland's backline started well enough with quick ball and Earls' dancing feet, but after that they were far too lateral in attack. England simply slid across the field and bullied Ireland into touch - men against boys.

massive frames

With Ireland's midfield always looking at the massive frames of rugby league convert Sam Burgess and Wasps' Elliot Daly, there was no way Ireland were going to run through the white wall.

The only problem is that Madigan and Ireland really did not have a plan B. The kicks to regain possession both from restarts and out of hand were far too long, not allowing any of Ireland's chasers a chance at sacking their opponents.

The tired-looking loop arounds were too predictable, and orchestrated too far behind the gain-line to stress the English defence much.

The result was a lot of pedestrian and unstructured Irish back-play, where apart from Keith Earls' break after just five minutes there were no further Irish line breaks in the game.

In my opinion despite a rusty couple of weeks for Madigan, he will still start in Rome. Madigan has always proved he is a big-game player and a natural talent but he needs to work on his game management.

Friday night was not rocket science. The English Saxons did not have a lineout, and even with their starting second-rows Ireland still stole most of the opposition throw-ins. So why didn't Ireland simply play more territory?

Why didn't they force the English back three into the corners and give them no option but to play the touch lines? At least they would get the ball back in the right positions on the park.

At times it seemed that Ireland got far too carried away with the running game when adherence to the basics would have served them better.

English fullback Saxons fullback Chris Pennell was adjudged Man of the Match but it could have easily gone to centre Elliot Daly or young out-half Henry Slade. Apart from one mistake when he should have fed flying winger Marlan Yarde, Daly was far more productive than his centre partner and "work in progress" Sam Burgess, the League convert.

Apart from O'Brien, Henderson and invaluable fitness run-outs for the likes of Earls and Mike Ross, the game revealed nothing. Bring on the main course next weekend in Rome; the starter in Cork was cold.

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