Friday 18 October 2019

Battle to get on the plane to Japan starts right here

Players need to hit form early or fall down the pecking order, warns Reddan

Test run: James Ryan on the charge against Japan during Ireland's summer tour in 2017 with Devin Toner in support. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Test run: James Ryan on the charge against Japan during Ireland's summer tour in 2017 with Devin Toner in support. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The 2018/'19 European rugby season reached its end in Paris on Saturday night with the Top 14 final, but for the 44 men called into Joe Schmidt's World Cup squad the short holiday is already over and the real work is about to begin.

Today the Ireland coach will gather his troops at Carton House and begin preparing for what will be a career-defining tournament for the coach and many of his players.

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Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

They have 12 weeks to prepare before they board the plane to Tokyo during which they play Italy, England and Wales twice, while training in camps in Kildare, Galway, Limerick, Portugal and Dublin.

There will be injury scares, losses of form and selection curve-balls as the coaches watch every move, review every session and analyse the data from performances in training and the matches to inform their decisions around the 31-man squad for the tournament itself.

Four years ago, it was Andrew Trimble who was the big name to miss out having suffered a foot injury; eight years ago it was Luke Fitzgerald who missed the cut.

Trimble was Ireland's player of 2014, but doubts over his fitness convinced Schmidt to go with Tommy Bowe, who had struggled for form and fitness in training and endured a difficult day out against England at Twickenham.

From early on in that pre-season, the talk around the camp-fire was that Bowe had come in in less than impressive shape and had struggled to get up to the pace at training.

A two-time Lion and one of Ireland's most prolific players, he faced an anxious wait until the very last minute but got there in the end.

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Reputations can count for little in the pressurised environment of the pre-World Cup camp.

So, as the players headed off around the world for their few weeks of rest at the end of last month, they knew in the back of their minds that they wouldn't be switching off entirely.

Plugging "I suppose you keep plugging away," Tadhg Furlong explained.

"You're just making sure your muscle mass (remains high) and you're still lifting (weights). I mean you're not killing yourself, you're mentally refreshing but you're not letting your body go to muck either. You're ready to hit the ground running. I suppose you structure it, don't you?

"I can lift weights for three days and then maybe do a small bit of running three days. That's just an hour and a half out of your day and you're gone. It's just about staying somewhat fit and you're ready to hit the ground running.

"In saying that, you're not going in and picking up small knocks and niggles, you're not picking up weights for the first time in three weeks and getting massive DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) and pulling out of sessions.

"The window is short to get ready for a World Cup."

From when they arrive in camp, they have seven weeks to get ready for their first warm-up game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium.

They will do a camp in Galway and another in Limerick, while they are also due to spend a period training at the new high-performance facility at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

Then, the rugby gets going in earnest.

Played out in warm-weather in front of barely interested crowds who are as invested in rating player performance as they will be supporting the team, pre-World Cup internationals are a curious beast.

However, we saw in 2007 how bad performances can compound one another and feed into the issues that materialise at the tournament itself and in 2011 David Wallace's knee injury was a reminder that serious injury always lurks in the shadows.

For players, they take on a life of their own, as Eoin Reddan explained last week.

"You get sucked into this plan for the World Cup, because everyone is teeing you up physically and the media is teeing you up mentally for something that's happening in September. All of a sudden in August you run straight into 15 internationals from whatever country you're playing who are absolutely baying for blood to get picked," he told the Second Captains podcast.

"It absolutely becomes this dynamic of one of the more intense internationals you'll ever play, it happens in August and no one's expecting it and you get caught on the hop.

"That'd be my advice to players. Your coaching staff have to plan for the World Cup, that's the correct thing to do, but mentally for players you need to be planning to hit form in August and be planning for a huge physical battle.

"You can't just do one week's tackling before you go out and play an international, it's a unique experience and it can go badly wrong.

"You think it's only a warm-up, but you wake up on Monday morning and it's in the press that you got four out of 10, a few of you got four out of 10 and you're trying to turn that around on the plane to Japan, you're not at home…

"So my theory is the warm-up games are incredibly important for individual form."

Ireland take on Italy at home, before taking a few days off and re-assembling for their warm-weather camp in Quinta do Lago, Portugal where they spent a week during the Six Nations. They travel directly from there to take on England and finish with back-to-back fixtures against Wales, finishing at the Aviva Stadium on September 7.

A day or two later, Schmidt will name his final 31-man squad having worked out he maths of what he needs and assessed the injuries and the performances.

Then, the final squad and the coaches and support staff make their way to Japan during the second week in September ahead of the big kick-off against Scotland on the 22nd.

Ireland toured Japan in 2017 to get a sense of the place. The Lions were off in New Zealand, but 21 of the 44 players named in the squad were on that tour as were all the coaches except Andy Farrell.

This, as Eddie Jones pointed out, will be the first properly neutral World Cup for all of the serious contenders and adapting to the culture of life in Japan will be a major part of succeeding.

"It is different culturally and everything is different to what you've experienced before," Jacob Stockdale said of The Land of the Rising Sun.

"At first, I didn't really like it. The first couple of days I was like, 'This is too strange' but after a while you start to get used to it and I was really enjoying it by the time I was leaving and I actually can't wait until I get back."

Inspected

Schmidt has been back on a couple of recces, while various members of the IRFU staff including strength and conditioning guru Jason Cowman and nutritionist Ruth Wood-Martin have inspected the facilities to make sure they're ready to go.

Although so many of the squad have been to Japan before, they will be briefed on the cultural differences before departure and the team will have two Japanese speaking liaison officers with them at all times during the tournament.

"I wouldn't say I know a whole lot about Japan as a country as of yet, the lads went on a summer tour there two years ago now and there's a mix; some lads loved it there, some lads thought it was grand, it was OK and some lads didn't like it," Furlong said. "It's always the same in any sort of crew but it will be interesting for sure.

"It's a different culture, a different way of life and I'm looking forward to experiencing it.

"You learn when you're at World Cups or on Lions tours or Irish tours down to the southern hemisphere, it's definitely not a holiday, you don't get to see a massive amount of the touristy things but, yeah, I think it's something to look forward to."

The lucky 31 will be experiencing that culture in a couple of months' time. The battle to get on the plane begins in earnest this week.

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