Wednesday 21 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Warm-ups can be a curious test as players step up efforts to seal their places for Japan'

Ireland v Italy preview

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Getty Images
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Shane Horgan's tongue was firmly in his cheek when he recently described the 2007 World Cup as his generation's gift to Irish rugby.

As a worst-case scenario it holds its own, and 12 years on the ghosts of that tournament remain.

The seeds for that disaster were planted in pre-season and became all too evident in a warm-up game against Italy at Ravenhill. Undercooked, a close-to-full-strength team undermined their own confidence with a lethargic display and needed a highly dubious Ronan O'Gara try at the death to win.

Eddie O'Sullivan would later describe it as the least enjoyable victory of his tenure, using the word "larcenous" to describe the closing stages.

It put a team who had gone within a hair's breadth of that year's Six Nations in crisis mode and they never recovered, with the golden generation of players exiting the World Cup at the pool stages.

One of the players who played that night, Rory Best, will captain the team in Japan, while Simon Easterby is the current team's forwards coach.

Others are notable commentators on the games and it was Horgan who drew parallels between the 2019 Six Nations and the tournament he took part in more than a decade ago.

That was before Ireland signed off on their title defence with one of the worst performances of the Joe Schmidt era and today represents the team's first chance to remove Cardiff as a reference point.

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Schmidt, who may be back in time to oversee today's game after returning to New Zealand due to a death in the family, wasn't impressed with Horgan's comparison between his current team and the misfiring side of 12 years ago, but there was something about the low energy levels and vacant stares that was oh so familiar.

A pre-season friendly featuring an experimental team against a mix-and-match Italian line-up in August won't quite wash away the aftertaste, but it will give the team a chance to set the tone for the month ahead.

Given the selection and the three more challenging games to come in the next four weeks, this game is unlikely to derail things in the same way the 2007 win in Belfast did, but these warm-up games are key to building momentum into a tournament that requires Ireland to start strong.

"The big thing that we learned is that you can't presume everything is going to be alright when you get to the World Cup," Best said of that experience.

"In 2007, probably the biggest mistake in hindsight was leaving 15 people behind when the rest went to Argentina, it kind of a made a statement to go: 'This is our starting team, the rest of you are playing for 16 spots'. That isn't good for a squad.

"And what happened is, the 15 got a little bit complacent. The other ones sort of didn't put in the extra effort, because they kind of went, 'Well, we're only playing to be on the bench anyway,' and that sort of festered itself.

Attitude

"We would be going to games and really the attitude of those warm-ups was, 'Right, if we don't get any injuries, we're a really good team when we have this 15 out', or this 16 or 18 or whatever number we could lean on.

"And that was brought into the Italy game, which we should have lost, but then the first two games against Namibia and Georgia, they were games where we should have put a real statement down and all that happened was we played crap.

"But it was all: 'Oh no, no, we'll be fine, when we get to a big game this is a team that raises itself' and they were the lessons that you've got to make sure that you attack every moment.

"The fact that the squad is so competitive helps that because boys are going to be coming out on Saturday, going, 'Right, this is my chance to be out in front, I'm going to put my hand up and say, I want to be in that squad and put the pressure on people who are playing the next week and in two weeks' time, and the week after that'."

Perhaps that's why Schmidt has selected the team that he has, knowing that the players on view will be desperate to impress and, thus, will produce a performance. The majority of the players that will take on Scotland in the opener in six weeks' time have the weekend off and will get their own chance to get up and running in Twickenham in two weeks' time or Cardiff seven days' later.

But for the bulk of the side that will take the field at a stormy Aviva Stadium today, this is a critical moment in their careers. Everyone wants to go to a World Cup and they may never get a better chance to impress.

The same applies to an Italian team who come into the game on the back of a training camp with England in Treviso and a week in Limerick.

Conor O'Shea's men probably should have beaten Ireland in Rome, but like Schmidt he has picked an experimental line-up full of players looking to make an impression.

There are lots of selection sub-plots, but waking up to a downpour won't do the players' spirits any good this morning.

Joey Carbery's ability to control a game in difficult conditions will be tested, while the outside backs will get plenty of opportunities to show their aerial abilities in strong winds.

Up front, Jack McGrath and Andrew Porter need good days at the set-piece, while Rob Herring will be thankful to have Devin Toner to hit out of touch.

Jean Kleyn can stake his claim on debut, while Tadhg Beirne can respond in kind off the bench. All of the back-rows have something to prove.

Behind the scrum, there is loads of talent but it might be a day for getting the basics right and building from there.

These games can take on a life of their own and injury is always a danger.

If Schmidt gets a strong performance full of players putting their hands up, while avoiding anything significant on that front, it'll be a job well done.

Verdict: Ireland

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