After a while, you have to take the level of the opposition into account once the score differential goes beyond a certain number. For me, that number is 40 points. Anything above that differential and you have to temper your assessment of the performance accordingly.
So no, the USA weren’t anywhere near Ireland’s level. Why would they be? Sure, they were decent against a heavily rotated English side last week but for me, that was more to do with how far the depth chart England went than anything else. It’s almost unfair to expect anything more than that from a team mainly pulled from the MLR which is a decent league but one in its professional infancy. There are levels to this game and, right now, the USA are a fair bit below what would be needed to trouble a heavily rotated Ireland side with multiple provincial standouts dotted through the starting XV. There’s no shame in that. They did their best and, for the opening 10 minutes, looked capable of making the game a little sticky for Ireland at the very least.
For Ireland, it would always be a matter of getting the USA into the positions that we would always expect to be dominant in – the lineout.
Some early wobbles aside, the lineout was always going to be an area where Ireland could work with some definitive offensive principles – the USA pack would have to respect the size of our lineout maul and their outside defence would have to deal with the physical threat of Stuart McCloskey at the scrum and Stuart McCloskey plus one or both of Gavin Coombes and Caelan Doris off the lineout. I wrote about this at length in the Green Eye this week and it came to pass early and often for Ireland on the field here.
Two set-piece launches – a scrum and a lineout – and both worked successfully off the same base principle; if we can compress their midfield defence we can launch our primary playmaker around the corner with a pocket runner tracking his running line.
Simple, effective and exactly what the doctor ordered when Ireland needed to get the game in gear after a sluggish enough opening.
Once we established our maul dominance, there was no way back for the USA even as early as the 20th minute. So, from there, the game became about what we did in between the maul tries. This, for example, after we scored maul try #1.
This lead to maul try #2.
There was no area of the game where we weren’t dominant. Better still, we were showing some real development with our 3-2-X shape, with Carbery, Keenan and Hume slotting into creative roles all through the offensive slots behind the 3-2 central shape.
Keenan, in particular, seemed to really relish this more creative role with the space afforded to him by the USA defence making pass decision easy for a player of his quality. The mobility of Carbery really seemed to light up the 3-2/3-3Close shape with his ability to unhinge from first receiver into the second layer to act as a wider playmaker. Again, the level of the opposition has to be taken into consideration but the 3-2-X system is meant to function with multiple, mobile playmakers.
When we had possession closer to the Italian 22, we used a wider 3-3 central shape to good effect, especially when it was combined with the relentless tempo, accuracy and passing radius of Craig Casey. That, when mixed together with a forward line that was getting over the gain line repeatedly, was an invitation for real attacking dynamism, especially against a gradually tiring and later red card depleted opponent.
Look at the numbers Casey cuts out with this pass to Carbery and how it unlocks the edge defence for a spell.
Again – look at Carbery and Keenan linking up in that middle space. The pass from Keenan could have been a little sharper off his left side here but you can see the potential for this structure to produce moments like this. When Will Addison came on for Andrew Conway at halftime, it added another wrinkle to our offensive shape.
The USA were down a man at this point, but the presence of multiple combination players – players capable of offering a direct running and multi-directional passing/kicking threat – opened up opportunities time and again. How much stock will Andy Farrell and Mike Catt put in this newfound attacking mobility? We’ll see in November.
Whatever about November, the coaching staff will be delighted with the relentlessness of Ireland’s attack as the game wore on. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to faff away the last 20 minutes trying all kinds of low percentage stuff but that isn’t what happened. Ireland stayed on-shape, the bench players slotted into their roles pretty comfortably and we even managed to hurt the US on transition with this clever kick through by Stuart McCloskey after Gavin Coombes recovered a lost USA breakdown.
Even Harry Byrne, on for his debut, felt empowered enough in our 3-2-X shape to try this kick option off a sequence around our own 22. Look at the 3-2 central shape extended with the link by Keenan at first receiver.
Byrne takes his option to kick as the second playmaker on this progression across the field which is great to see in a young player but also from Ireland in general, where it seems we’ve been crying out for multiple playmakers in the attacking line for the guts of three years now.
The scores just kept coming, which showed the focus of quite a young team to make the statement that good teams make at this level. That statement is this; when you are not on our level, we beat you out the gate. That would have been the challenge thrown down to this team pre-game despite their lack of experience at this level. They did so with flying colours but what that means in the medium term remains to be seen.
You have to grade on a curve in the aftermath of a 71-10 win because if you didn’t, everyone would have five stars and a stop at McDonalds on the way home. We’d be broke. There were no poor performers here wearing a green jersey. That’s just a fact.
With my focus on James Ryan over the last few weeks, I was happy to see him take a more support focused role in this game. He was Ireland’s primary lineout target and did so pretty well for the most part. He was outside the top three in forward ball carriers – which we would have expected – but I felt he struggled to make an impact at the offensive breakdown where he was mostly a second arriving support player in a game where the US weren’t actively competing. He was far from poor though and I’d go as far as to say that he was exactly as good as he was needed to be. A few weeks off and a reset will do him the world of good.
Caelan Doris had a decent game here but dropped out of four-star contention with three or four handling errors at key moments.
I thought Tom O’Toole and Dave Kilcoyne had really strong games in all facets. Good scrummaging, good impact ball carrying and, in O’Toole’s case, some lovely moments in transition where he got to show off his handling ability. Nice stuff.
Ryan Baird had one of those games where you’re reminded just how young he actually is. I’m not quite sure where his best role is at the moment. He’s not complete enough to play the role we expect of our #6 but I don’t think he’s got the tight forward credentials to play that #4 role either – yet. You see it in a few small things like his breakdown entries, some of his lineout lifting, some of his regular carrying but they’ll surely come with time. He struggled to impose himself on this one either way.
I thought Ronán Kelleher played incredibly well here. Scoring a hat-trick = prominence, sure, but it’s the immense physicality of his work around the field that stands out about everything he does. Sure, he had some early wobbles in the lineout but when Ireland simplified he could go back to his main game. Is the lineout a concern for Kelleher? Plainly, yes. Top-level rugby has a tendency to boil you down to your weakest trait and for a hooker, that can’t be your throw but – and a big but – everything else is exactly what you’d want from the modern hooker. That is why Ireland will and must persevere with Kelleher. He has too much upside. This game was a good example. Sure, tries, but I’d argue that you or I could have scored two of them – he had a limousine ride at the back of a maul moving forward faster than climate change. Outside those two, though, he was a constant physical threat during his time on the field and looked the outstanding tight forward on the field. ★★★★★
The best part of games like this is watching young players making their debut and making it look like their 20th cap. That was James Hume, for me, who looked endlessly comfortable here. He handled the ball really well in the second layer of attack and played around the compressions afforded to him by Stuart McCloskey and others. This was a very encouraging debut for a young midfielder who seems to have all the right qualities to be an interesting man to watch in the coming months of the new season. ★★★★★
Stuart McCloskey was superb here. He was Ireland’s offensive centre-piece for the entire contest and was endlessly effective in doing so, with everything from tries to assists, to forcing the kind of midfield compressions we’d have drawn up pre-game. Excellent. ★★★★★
This was as good as I’ve seen from Hugo Keenan in a green shirt. Does this game scale up to the bigger games? I hope so because this Hugo Keenan could be the strike playmaker that Ireland have been waiting for. My one complaint about Keenan during the Six Nations was the quality of his handling – moments where he could have passed but didn’t or did pass but not accurately enough – but he was a different player here, regularly filing into primary creative positions and backing himself to make plays. Top class. ★★★★★
Craig Casey is another one of those players who look at home at any level of rugby they play at. Sure, the USA don’t currently represent the pinnacle of the game at test level – not even close – but Casey certainly didn’t play like he was in a handy summer tour game. He was outstanding. His kicking was superb, his defence was spiky and physical but his passing – man, it was something else. He played at the kind of tempo that the USA couldn’t handle, even with a strong “no compete” order on the breakdown. They wanted to keep players active in the defensive line but Casey regularly had the pace and range on his pass to hit outside their primary defenders and unlock wide and layered attacks from all over the pitch. Hugely encouraging. ★★★★★
Gavin Coombes has had a great season. In the grand scheme of things, you would hope that this game is a footnote in a long career – his first start and the first indicator of what kind of player he can be at test level. Again, as with others, he will (and probably already has, to be fair) have bigger physical examinations than this game but if this is any indicator, there is a serious, serious player here.
He made 12 passes in this game – the highest of any forward and only behind Casey, Blade, Carbery and Keenan – and almost all of them were of the highest quality. He consistently unlocked linebreaks in the first half before going to a more carry heavy game in the second half where he consistently rammed over the gainline. His willingness to back his skillset as well as his colossal power is the mark of a quality operator. If Coombes game scales up to the bigger challenges coming his way in this shirt, there’s an incredibly special player here. ★★★★★
Players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating.