Thursday 17 October 2019

Determination of locals means Irish summer tour will be no holiday

Japan would love to lay down a marker against one of their World Cup pool opponents

'Zebo will be looking forward to some downtime in a part of the world where there’s lots to see and do. First though he has to bed in to a new role: senior player.'
'Zebo will be looking forward to some downtime in a part of the world where there’s lots to see and do. First though he has to bed in to a new role: senior player.'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We asked a bookmaker for odds on Simon Zebo being called up to the Lions tour at some point next week, when the Ireland wing is in the US. In other words, for lightning to strike twice. Four years ago Zebo was with Ireland's remainers in America when the Lions were in Australia. And he was not long off the pitch when he got called aside.

"Les (Kiss) and Joe (Schmidt) had just gotten a phone call after the game in Houston," he says. "Hopped off the bus at the hotel, on the way to the team room, and I got pulled aside and they let me know I was flying out the next day to meet up with the boys down in Australia. So that was an exciting conversation - the most exciting conversation I've ever had with a coach, I think. I was over the moon, yeah. It was a great moment. I got to be a part of a great tradition."

What he is embarking on tomorrow is less about tradition and more about preparation. The World Cup draw pitching us into the same pool as Japan has given the trip an extra dimension: for the locals it represents a better than average opportunity to lay down a marker for their hosting of that tournament.

Four years ago they played Wales in similar circumstances, where the Lions had depleted their opponents. They lost the first Test by four points and won the second comfortably. The prospect of a squared series will appeal to Joe Schmidt only if the first game has been lost. And that won't be good.

These are odd trips: a combination of front-liners who want to be somewhere else but can't say that; greenhorns who will become Test regulars; and novices who will never get past first base. They are all in this party, and all will be expected to pull their weight.

Japan may be the novel aspect for most involved but before they head down there they'll have a week in New Jersey, leading to Saturday's Test against the Eagles in the Red Bull Stadium. Zebo will be looking forward to some downtime in a part of the world where there's lots to see and do. First though he has to bed in to a new role: senior player.

"Yeah, it seems that way!" he laughs. "It's weird being a senior player in my mid-20s. But no, it's good. Seeing young guys like Jacob Stockdale and Rory O'Loughlin, fellas I haven't worked with before. Seeing what they're capable of in training and things like that, trying to get to know them better . . . yeah, hopefully it will develop off the pitch and on the pitch."

The temperature in New Jersey on Saturday will be mid 20s, and humid, and the locals will be looking to do what they did in Houston four years ago and give Ireland some hurry-up. They have every chance.

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For the Eagles, it's all about the home and away RWC qualifiers coming up against Canada at the end of the month - they have another Test, against Georgia after the Ireland game - after which coach John Mitchell will be heading to Pretoria and the Blue Bulls.

Funny thing about some coaches: when they're packing their bags to move on they seem to loosen all grip on humility. Mitchell dipped into this pool last week when announcing his impending departure. He took time out to mention his own "expertise" and the "major part" he has played in the development of the Eagles' wingspan.

That development comprises a better than break-even win ratio over his 18 months. The only Test against a tier-one nation however was Italy - a narrow loss - but both games against Canada were won. The issue now is if they can break new ground and beat their neighbours in a World Cup qualifying series.

Pushing Ireland close will help, but you have to wonder how US rugby is still aiming so low. Given that their parent body has twice been insolvent in the last 11 years explains some of it. The tug of war between Sevens and 15s hasn't helped either. Then, last season, their first foray into a domestic pro league collapsed after year one. They have their issues over there.

By the time Ireland land in Tokyo the Brave Blossoms - are they self-styled? - will have had a run out against Romania in Kumamoto. What a relief for the Japanese that for the next few weeks they won't have to do any long-haul. The arrival this season of their Sunwolves franchise into Super Rugby has seen the poor lads clock up circa 130 hours in the skies. And they have two more games to go.

Naturally enough, they are propping up the table in the South African conference, but nobody expected any different. The intensity of the competition; the travel; the exposure to better refereeing - it will all contribute to a stronger Test squad come the World Cup.

For now though the team they will put out against Ireland will be radically different to that which made history against the Boks in the 2015 World Cup. Under Jamie Joseph they play a bigger kicking game than under Eddie Jones, but it's designed to get the opposition to kick back - and then do damage from broken play.

With temperatures there in the mid 30s and saturating humidity - it's the rainy season so if you're travelling bring an umbrella - Joseph should be looking to run a tired Ireland off the park. And if the tourists lose a couple of key men on the US leg then we could be looking at a fascinating stress test for a bunch of players with very little experience, or none, of Test rugby, let alone coping with the conditions.

"They'll be thrown into the deep end," Zebo says. "But judging on how the guys have performed this year, and shown this year, they'll be more than capable to go out and compete and hopefully pick up a couple of wins."

Incidentally, the odds against Zebo getting the nod to jump on a plane to NZ are an unattractive 5/4, which tells you something of what the bookies expect on the injury front.



Fixtures (local times) — Sat June 10: USA v Ireland, Red Bull Stadium 5.0. Sat June 17: Japan v Ireland, Ecopa Stadium 2.0. Sat June 24: Japan v Ireland, Ajinomoto Stadium 2.0

Backs — S Zebo (Munster; 33), T O’Halloran (Connacht; 3), A Conway (Munster; 1), J Stockdale (Ulster; 0), K Earls (Munster; 59), G Ringrose (Leinster; 8), L Marshall (Ulster; 9), R O’Loughlin (Leinster; 0), R Scannell (Munster; 0), P Jackson (Ulster; 24), J Carbery (Leinster; 3), K Marmion (Connacht; 13), L McGrath (Leinster; 1), J Cooney (Ulster; 0)

Forwards — N Scannell (Munster; 4), J Tracy (Leinster; 2), D Heffernan (Connacht; 0), C Healy (Leinster; 67), D Kilcoyne (Munster; 17), John Ryan (Munster; 6), F Bealham (Connacht; 6), A Porter (Leinster; 0), Q Roux (Connacht; 1), D Toner (Leinster; 47), K Treadwell (Ulster; 0), James Ryan (Leinster, 0), J Conan (Leinster; 1), D Leavy (Leinster; 2) J O’Donoghue (Munster; 1), R Ruddock (Leinster; 13; capt), J van der Flier (Leinster; 7 caps)

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