Saturday 1 October 2016

Conor O'Shea: Under-fire old guard must perform if depleted Ireland are to stand any chance

Conor O'Shea

Published 07/02/2016 | 10:45

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Jamie Heaslip
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Jamie Heaslip
Dan Biggar is playing rugby that is as good as any fly half there is at the moment Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

I don't think I have waited for a team selection from Ireland with the same sense of anticipation, or indeed dread, for a long time. Only Joe Schmidt and his fellow coaches knew what he was juggling with and which way he was going to have to go.

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Only he knew that Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien were not going to make it along with all the other senior players he would be missing.

Everyone is quick to say 'blood young players' but in doing that you have to give those players the opportunity to perform within the environment, an opportunity that will give them an experience they want more of and they need to be surrounded by people who they look at and know will help them through.

In selecting for today's game Schmidt has made sure the balance is as right as it can be; god knows our bench is callow enough compared to our opposition without taking other risks. I know we are at home but Wales have to be favourites for this one, which is incredible given we are going for the three in a row in the Championship.

I have mentioned this before but in the quiet moments on match day I always look across the match-ups and see where my team stand in comparison to the opposition. Whichever way I think those individual match-ups stack up, it always brings me back to task and that is delivering the performance that we control.

We can't and don't control the result, the opposition, the conditions, the referee etc, we control ourselves. Joe Schmidt will in his quiet moment have looked across the teamsheets and he will privately know that we are less settled than our opposition and in key areas we just look inferior to Wales. Thankfully the game isn't played on paper.

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I see a Welsh team roll in to town today with the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Ken Owens, Bradley Davies, Dan Lydiate on the bench, and when you see that bench you know they have a top team.

Look at their back row of Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and Justin Tipuric, their midfield trio of Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies and you know you are playing a team who actually don't care that they are away from home. You know they are a team who are expected to win.

There is no such thing as a free hit in sport - the expectation is that you win no matter what team you put on the field - and Ireland will be expected to win this by anyone who goes to the ground, and indeed the players will expect but if they lose there will be mitigating circumstances. No one representing Ireland will look for the easy out, nor should they, but the burden of real expectation is on the Welsh to win away from home.

Schmidt and his squad would be the real winners if Ireland get a win today because he could then point to the players next time when we play denuded of our best and to the fact that others do just step in and can do the job.

If Ireland are to stand any chance today then the players who are being questioned over their form and fitness really need to come to the party. Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton need to play like the world class players they are but as in any walk of life it is hard to just turn it on.

We have an experienced backline who have a lot of rugby at the highest level behind them and they have to enthuse with their energy and commitment, the type of game that Andrew Trimble has delivered for years for both province and country.

My concern for Ireland today surrounds the back five of the scrum on the basis that Wales are as strong as they could be in that area, and there are magnificent rugby players and leaders within that quintet. If Wales control the tight phases then Biggar at fly half is playing rugby that is as good as any fly half there is at the moment in world rugby and he can slowly take the game away from us.

I'm not being defeatist here. I just think I am going to go to this game with a realistic mindset. If this was in the Millennium Stadium I would have Wales as 10-15 point favourites. Away teams invariably need to be 10 points better than the opposition to win so we need our players to deliver a performance that raises the crowd. They need to play with a rabid-like intensity in every thing they do and see if that is enough to get us over the line.

Today would be a win to my mind against the odds but one that would do everyone a huge amount of good as we try and put to bed our World Cup woes.

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