Tuesday 20 August 2019

Testing time ahead as World Cup looms large

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt . Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt . Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Most of the time the term 'Test Match' is perfectly suited for the job in hand. It is, after all, a test of lots of things. The only time that description loses some of its accuracy is in the run-up to a World Cup. It is the silliest of seasons.

For the players it's the only time in a four-year cycle when a series actually interrupts their preparation for something far more important. So depending on the approach of the respective strength and conditioning directors, either or both sides might be a mile off the pace of the international game. Which is what will happen in Lansdowne Road on Saturday when Conor O'Shea - whose name is being mentioned as potentially the next CEO in Munster - starts his last lap as Italy coach.

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O'Shea's squad have been hard at it for the last two months. This game opens his route to Japan that will continue against Russia, France and England before the tournament proper kicks off. If he is going to rely solely on the 31 to look after the last two of those games, then there will be a fair few unlikely lads out against Ireland and Russia.

Joe Schmidt's eye will be cast over something similar, so don't fetch up to HQ next weekend - where tickets range from €15 for the worst seats in the house up to €60 - expecting to see the side that finished the Six Nations campaign four months ago.

Rather, it will be closer to the collection who played in Chicago last November when the coach used only two nailed-on starters in putting more than 50 points on Italy. Garry Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale were the pair in question. Joey Carbery started that day as well and after the season he's had you'd imagine he's straining at the leash by this stage.

Injury has meant the Carbery plan has not rolled out as well as Schmidt had hoped. After the saga of Leinster playing him pretty much only at full-back developed into whether or not he would up sticks and leave, the early days at Munster seemed to make it all worthwhile.

Before Christmas he had 10 games in red at outhalf on top of four for Ireland in the November window. The New Year changed the picture to five for Munster and just two for Ireland in a Six Nations campaign that ended in round two. At last, his hamstring issues seem to be behind him. So he is making up for lost time. World Cup warm-ups - especially the last two rounds - are haunted by the prospect of injury taking a plane ticket from you and handing it to somebody else. Joe Schmidt will be especially nervous about getting his pet project to Japan in one piece.

With eight games between now and the World Cup quarter-finals, the 31 players Schmidt already has in his head will be some way removed from the group available to him when Ireland face either New Zealand or South Africa in the knock-outs. If it seems presumptuous to be fast-forwarding to that point then it's an acknowledgement that coming home before then is such an appalling vista as to close your eyes to it.

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Saturday's Test illustrates the different mindsets of the respective coaches. For Schmidt it's the first step on a journey he hopes will break new ground for Ireland. For O'Shea it's another hard day out for a country with just six wins since the last World Cup - one of them over a Tier 1 nation, South Africa.

Ireland's warm-up schedule

August 10: v Italy, Aviva 2.0

August 24: v England, Twickenham 3.0

August 31: v Wales, Principality Stadium 2.30

September 7: v Wales, Aviva 2.0

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Tipp throw off the shackles while Kilkenny’s soul-searching begins

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