Saturday 19 October 2019

Big guns need to fire for Ireland to rescue campaign - Brent Pope assesses Joe Schmidt' starting team

The Ireland team sing Ireland's Call prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Ireland and Russia at the Kobe Misaki Stadium in Kobe, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The Ireland team sing Ireland's Call prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Ireland and Russia at the Kobe Misaki Stadium in Kobe, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

Ireland need a bonus point win against Samoa, not just to cement qualification into the last eight of Rugby World Cup, but also to finish the pool stages with confidence and momentum.

In many regards, Ireland are exactly where they always presumed they would be – beat Samoa and make the all-important quarter-finals.

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Ireland need to bounce into the knock-out stages rather than limp there and that requires a morale-boosting defeat of the tough islanders.

Samoa are not the force they once were, but no rugby team in the world hits harder and while they are only playing for pride, their World Cup could be defined by one big scalp. So how does tomorrow’s Irish team stand up?

Jordan Larmour: Gets another opportunity to show what he can bring to the party. Lamour at his best has X Factor speed and feet but is behind Rob Kearney in terms of what you need your fullback to do, especially in the latter rounds.

Keith Earls: Earls’ moment of defensive bravery and speed against Japan may yet be responsible for Ireland avoiding the All Blacks in the quarter-finals. Passed Larmour as he tracked back to save Ireland’s bonus point. Has looked lively and never lets the coach or team down. A certainty to start in the crunch games.

Robbie Henshaw: Ireland are simply not the same without Henshaw. A physical presence in both attack and defence, as well as good communication skills and a good eye for playing what is in front of him. Soft tissue injuries are psychological as well as physical, meaning that in the back of the head you are often waiting for another tear or strain, and that plays on your mind.

Henshaw just needs to get through this match, and must be protected. Has to get through at least 60 minutes and build his confidence, to assure him that his hamstring is perfect.

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Bundee Aki: Aki would have been the form player in the warm-up series, but his handling errors against Japan let him down. Could still be an option against the Springboks, when you need to meet physicality head on, but needs a big performance in creativity and off-loading to make that selection. If Henshaw is fit, it now looks like a Henshaw-Ringrose combo for the quarter-final.

Jacob Stockdale: The best finisher in the Irish game has looked a little off thus far, especially against Japan when he seemed to be put in the clear on a couple of occasions only to be run down. Stockdale needs a big game.

Powerful and tall, he is an asset in the kick-pass game, a huge feature of this tournament. Andrew Conway’s stirring performances leave him barking at the heels of both wingers.

Jonathan Sexton: Needs to be micro-managed, and convinced to stay out of the danger areas. Samoa’s best ball-carriers will target Sexton’s channel, as Samoa like to attack close in with big carries. He needs to stay out of that lane as best he can, but given his aggressive nature he won’t.

The sight of Sexton injured would severely reduce Ireland’s chances, he is that vital. Ireland have missed effective game managers and Sexton is one of the best. The other players in the Irish backline are too quiet and inexperienced – Sexton is neither and needs to be fully fit. Carbery will probably come on and see out the second half as he too badly needs to put his injury behind him.

Conor Murray: Still not the player of 2018 and a bit more reluctant to take on the sniping role. Needs to use his physical presence as he did in Chicago. Box-kicking is coming back, just needs to be more of a threat with ball in hand.

CJ Stander: In my opinion Stander’s best position in the modern setup is at 6, as his carries are more effective out wide. Has a huge engine but is not as dynamic or as powerful from the No 8 position.  As a ball carrier, he should be used at second phase and beyond rather than being always the first taxi off the rank.

Josh van der Flier: What sets the Leinster No 7 apart is his out-and-out speed, and against Samoa and New Zealand this is vital. Against South Africa. Schmidt may well elect for a combination of Peter O'Mahony, Rhys Ruddock and Stander, given a more physical horses for courses selection. If it’s New Zealand, van der Flier must start.

Tadhg Beirne: This is a wise experiment by Schmidt. Beirne brings the lineout option without Peter O'Mahony in the team, plus added bulk and physicality. But can he suddenly play a quite different role? If Beirne plays well he could force himself into the starting quarter-final selection but it will require a massive game.

James Ryan: As Sexton is for the Irish backline, Ryan is for the forwards. Will not be overjoyed at his performance against Japan and will want to carry more, but will take that loss personally, so expect a huge game from one of the best in the world.

Iain Henderson: Outstanding against Scotland, then dipped slightly in form like most others. Mobile and plays as an extra backrow if needed. If Jean Kleyn had made a better impression, then Henderson’s spot may have been in jeopardy given Ireland's perceived need for extra bulk and physicality.

Tadhg Furlong: Not a lot of game time for the world’s best tight-head, but that may suit him coming in fresh and fit. Has not quite reached the form of 2018 and the Lions tour but has the ability to get up for the big match.

Rory Best: Under some pressure. Question is whether Best still has it around the field. Gets the players around him to perform but needs a backline leader like Sexton to help with on-field management.

Cian Healy: Under some pressure from the outstanding Dave Kilcoyne. Both players are great ball-carriers but Healy is still more experienced for the bigger matches – a close call.

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