Saturday 16 December 2017

Conor O'Shea: If Ireland's untouchables stay fit, then anything is possible

Five main players hold key to Joe Schmidt's World Cup masterplan

Cian Healy in action during squad training
Cian Healy in action during squad training

Conor O'Shea

At times coaches can over-intellectualise their influence on the game. Coaches must have the ability to challenge their players and make them better technically and tactically. They must create the environment players and support staff operate in but when it comes to it a coach is only as good as the players he has at his disposal.

Joe Schmidt's post-mortem on Ireland's Six Nations triumph will be in-depth and detailed, but looking forward, what he needs more than anything at the World Cup is his best players fit. Ireland have depth within the squad now like never before and there will be games at the World Cup in our pool (Canada and Romania) where we will be afforded the opportunity to rotate and rest players so we arrive at the crunch matches with a fresh squad. But between now and then what happens domestically and in the RWC warm-up matches will have a huge bearing on our ability to progress to where we all believe we can get to.

Within a squad of really talented players we have what I would describe as a few untouchables. Going into battle without these players would mean that both the squad's belief and ability to play Joe's way would be diminished. Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell, Seán O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton are Ireland's untouchables. Yes, rugby is a team game and your squad is everything but these guys lead and give belief to the dressing room - they are world-class.

Cian Healy is still coming back to fitness but before the Scotland game and despite being on the bench in earlier matches, Joe Schmidt name-checked him as someone who was leading the group on and off the training pitch. Healy is someone opponents fear. He gives go-forward in a way few props in world rugby do. A lot of people speak about Ireland being conservative in how they look after the ball, starving opposition by not making mistakes. What a heinous crime that is!

Joe Schmidt has always wanted to play the game like that but once over the gainline, accuracy, precision of pass and decision-making allow his teams to build a score. In his time at Leinster his go-to men to get him across that gainline were Healy and Seán O'Brien. These two players fit and in unison give Ireland (and indeed Leinster) a huge boost. Jack McGrath has been one of the finds of the season at loosehead and will continue to get better but Healy is world-class. Schmidt will be looking for him to kick on over the coming months the more he plays.

Seán O'Brien's selection after injury at the start of the Six Nations with hardly any game time under his belt illustrated his importance to Ireland. He was unplayable against Scotland and, frighteningly for the opposition, he is still finding his way back to full fitness. Here is a bloke who, despite all our back-row talent, is the player I believe Joe Schmidt wants fit above all others and he will be watching for him to get sharper by the week. It is no surprise that Ireland went from the team that couldn't score to the team that could when these two were rampaging together again from the start of a game.

If O'Brien and Healy are the ball-carriers who make the difference, then the man rooted in pragmatism, drive and sheer will to win, is the guy who makes sure Ireland never forget that rugby is a physical war first, and that is Paul O'Connell. One of the all-time greats of world rugby, O'Connell is capable of peaks to his game that no one can match and he will be demanding of his team just as he will be challenging of his coaches. He has earned the right to do that and in the pressure cooker of a World Cup environment with so much expected he will drive the right balance in the approach as both captain and conduit between players and coaches.

If O'Connell brings the grounded approach, Jamie Heaslip, who is every bit the competitor, brings the swagger. He exudes confidence. It might come across as arrogance at times but it is just a supreme belief in his ability and that is something that rubs off on others. He is not a show-boater - you need to look no further than his tracking of Stuart Hogg last week to make the tackle that ultimately won the Six Nations.

Johnny Sexton is Joe Schmidt incarnate on the pitch. He probably wakes with Joe in his head. He calls the calls, understands the plan, implements it and has the ability to deliver it. Ireland are fortunate to have some genuinely world-class players who have an ability to play whichever way we need, but the puppeteer is Johnny. It irritates me when I hear people say we have no one to replace Johnny. Of course we don't, like we will never have another Brian O'Driscoll. Special players are that for a reason and as a coach you want them fit and playing when it counts.

As has been said many times, we are incredibly fortunate to be living in this era of Irish rugby. The expectation and atmosphere heading into the World Cup will be reminiscent of Euro '88 and Italia '90, the country will be alive and dreaming and as the months build so too will the excitement. If Joe Schmidt can arrive with his squad fully fit and his untouchables on the pitch, then I believe Ireland will get to a semi-final. From there you are in one-off games where untouchables thrive.

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