Friday 21 July 2017

Last chance to put hands up

Jones and McCarthy aiming to stake their claim

Brian O'Driscoll in relaxed mood
during the team's captain's run
ahead of their World Cup warm-up
game against France today.
Brian O'Driscoll in relaxed mood during the team's captain's run ahead of their World Cup warm-up game against France today.

Hugh Farrelly

BE careful what you wish for. Ireland's decision to play four warm-up internationals, as well as a run-out against Connacht, was a positive demonstration of the lessons learned from their flawed World Cup preparations four years ago.

The downside is that the more games you play the more questions are raised and, between injury issues, established players playing below par and outsiders excelling, the whole affair can become very complicated very quickly.

Ireland's way is still the correct way to go about getting ready for New Zealand 2011 but it is not good for the nerves, as the last two days have testified.

First we had the worrying sight of Ireland's scrum in moonwalk mode against a pair of Connacht props who were, up to that point, unmapped journeymen.

As a consistent advocate of Jamie Hagan, this was a particularly frustrating experience given that the former Connacht tight-head was not on hand to take advantage and the question of which props (and how many) make Monday's 30-man squad has now become even more vexing.

Then there was confirmation that David Wallace would not be fit to take his place on the openside flank against France at Lansdowne Road today.

Since breaking through at the start of the last decade, Wallace has been instrumental to Ireland's progress but, at 35, with three weeks to go to the opening clash with the US, his lack of game-time has to be a concern.

Wallace is not alone and Ireland could travel to the World Cup with a clutch of other frontline players (Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe) short on match-hardening preparation.

All of which places added significance on today's encounter. Declan Kidney badly needs encouraging signs from his midfield pairing of O'Driscoll and D'Arcy as well as Ferris and Flannery making positive, knock-free contributions off the bench.

Wallace's unavailability means Ireland start the back-row that proved so effective for Leinster in their remarkable second-half march to Heineken Cup glory last May and, having not played since breaking his arm at the end of that month, Shane Jennings faces one of the biggest games of his life ahead of Monday's announcement.

Jennings is a player whose hard-headed will to win could prove invaluable around the squad in New Zealand as well as providing specialist openside cover for Wallace.

It is a massive challenge for Jennings to prove conclusively, first game up, that he is World Cup ready and he is up to it. As regards the propping situation, Cian Healy and Mike Ross are set in stone as first-choices, with Tom Court the designated bench option.

The scrum is hugely important to Ireland's World Cup aspirations and Court can do damage at scrum-time, particularly on the loosehead side, but on the back of a so-so season he could use a strong exhibition of his power when he comes on against France's propping grizzlies.

While Court's squad berth looks secure, Felix Jones and Mike McCarthy are two players looking to force Kidney's hand before Monday.

Geordan Murphy had an excellent game against Connacht but it does not look as though he is travelling, although that does not necessarily mean Jones is guaranteed to make it no matter how well he goes today -- particularly if Kidney opts for 17 forwards and 13 backs.

There has been talk of Luke Fitzgerald missing out but, to this observer, it would be ludicrous to leave a player of Fitzgerald's ability at home.

cameo

Regardless of vacillating form since returning from injury last season, Fitzgerald is simply too good to do without and can reinforce that point with a captivating cameo off the bench today.

Donnacha Ryan has had a good August and looks to have secured his berth but there may still be room for Mike McCarthy's athleticism in New Zealand.

After a steady international debut against Scotland, McCarthy can come on in the second half today and put everything into a performance that may, at the very least, provide pause for thought.

France should provide a worthy examination of the various Irish credentials. The record of one Ireland win from the last 11 contests with the French emphasises as much and, for all his tinkering tendencies, Marc Lievremont has still brought a heavyweight side to Dublin.

They will ask questions of Ireland's defence, but this has been by far the most encouraging aspect of Ireland's August thus far and a source of confidence for the World Cup.

Les Kiss makes Ireland hard to beat and today we need to see evidence of offensive ambition to go with rear-guard solidity. This would be aided considerably by a convincing performance from Tomas O'Leary at scrum-half, who will be aware of the form of Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss and the swelling momentum behind Conor Murray.

After wavering in last weekend's 19-12 defeat in Bordeaux, the line-out also needs to click and Ireland go in with a back-row that is considerably shorter than their French counterparts, who include Julien Bonnaire in their trio -- one of the finest line-out exponents in world rugby. This places the onus not just on the throwing of Rory Best but on variation and speed with Paul O'Connell's presence from the off reassuring in this regard.

With so many strands to the encounter it is a hard match to call but it is safe to expect a high degree of intensity from the home side as the World Cup starts to feel very real, while France are unlikely to be at the same level of ferociousness on the road as they were in front of a raucous Bordeaux crowd last week.

If Jonathan Sexton and his midfield can pull the strings effectively on the back of a strong forward performance (have a punt on Sean O'Brien for another Man of the Match performance), victory is well within Ireland's grasp and the picture will, hopefully, start to look a little clearer.

Verdict: Ireland

IRELAND -- F Jones; A Trimble, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O'Leary; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; S O'Brien, D Wallace, J Heaslip. Reps: J Flannery, T Court, M McCarthy, S Ferris, E Reddan, R O'Gara, L Fitzgerald.

FRANCE -- C Heymans; M Medard, A Rougerie, F Estebanez, A Palisson; D Skrela, M Parra; JB Poux, D Szarzewski, N Mas; P Pape, L Nallet (capt); F Quedraogo, J Bonaire, L Picamoles. Reps: G Guirado, F Barcella, J Pierre, T Dusautoir, D Yachvili, F Trinh Duc, V Clerc, L Ducalcon.

REF -- C Joubert (South Africa).

Ireland v France,

Live, RTE 2, BBC 2, 5.0

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