Saturday 19 October 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Joe Schmidt's legacy is on the line - Ireland owe it to themselves to win well'

Ireland are lucky enough to still have control of their own destiny – they owe it to themselves to book their quarter-final place

10 October 2019; Head coach Joe Schmidt speaking with match officials about during the Ireland Captain's Run at the Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
10 October 2019; Head coach Joe Schmidt speaking with match officials about during the Ireland Captain's Run at the Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor in Fukuoka

JOE SCHMIDT'S reign got under way with a comfortable win over Samoa back in 2013 and Ireland's mission on Saturday is to ensure it does not end against the same opponents in Fukuoka.

Amid the chaos engulfing this World Cup, the task facing this team is relatively simple. Win and score four tries and they are in the quarter-final against New Zealand or South Africa.

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Anything less drags them into the mire. They don't want to spend Sunday refreshing their phones or glued to the television, watching Japan v Scotland.

At the time of writing, that match is scheduled to take place in Yokohama. The teams have been named, the coaches have said their pieces and the tension is palpable.

Whether it actually does kick off depends on the severity of the damage inflicted by Super-Typhoon Hagibis on Sunday.

We've never known a World Cup weekend like it, but Ireland need to block out the weather reports and concerns over the pitch and focus on their task because after all that's happened over the course of the 74 matches in the last six years, a pool exit would be an ignominious end to what has been a glorious reign.

Their coach's legacy is on the line and it will be every time he sends an Irish team out into the field from here on in.

This is the beginning of the knockouts for Schmidt and his men.

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The sight of the coach marching on to the pitch at the Fukuoka Hakatanori Stadium before the Captains' Run and making a big fuss out of drawing the officials' attention to the poor surface is a concern.

While he sticks to the script when talking about controlling the controllables, his actions suggest he's spending energy worrying about a playing surface he can't do anything about when all focus should be on the task at hand.

That was always the fear approaching this World Cup. Four years ago, he spent the last week worrying about Paul O'Connell's retirement, Seán O'Brien's suspension and Johnny Sexton's injury.

When a patched up team came out to face Argentina, their energy levels and belief were well below where they should be and they were ripped to shreds.

The pitch might be rubbish, it may even be dangerous, but that can't be on the players' minds as they take to the field.

After their performances against Japan and Russia, they need to produce a signature display to see off the Samoans and head into the game of their lives free of worry and full of confidence.

Samoa will be obdurate and they showed how tricky a customer they can be when they pushed Japan to the wire last weekend, but the reality is they are the 14th ranked team in the world - sandwiched between the United States and Georgia.

They have good players who, if they were allowed to fulfil their potential at international level, might be able to make a mark here.

While Ireland have six players with 50 or more caps, Samoa have none. Many of their best players declined a call up because of club pressure, their coach Steve Jackson has only been in situ for a year and their build-up was less than exemplary.

Ireland came into this tournament as the world's No 1 ranked side and, while their defeat to Japan has dented the belief in their ability to go on and achieve their goals here, they have not fallen so far as to succumb to 17/1 outsiders.

The bookies are offering a 28-point spread for this one and that looks generous towards the Irish. It was 21 for the Japan game, but they're not often that wrong twice.

They will be up for this match as they look to sign off on a high, but Ireland should have the quality and cohesion to dispatch them.

10 October 2019; Head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and Jonathan Sexton during the Ireland Captain's Run at the Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Johnny Sexton's presence in a close-to-full-strength side is a reassuring thing. Ireland have been good with their talisman in the No 10 shirt, not so hot without him.

Having Robbie Henshaw outside him will help matters, while Bundee Aki is in for an emotional evening as he faces the land of his father and mother. He needs a big game.

The back three is laced with running threat and all three players have looked dangerous at this tournament, but Ireland have struggled to get the ball to them in space.

That starts up front where the first-choice tight-five is selected to provide a clean supply of front-foot ball to the half-backs, with Conor Murray back in the starting XV to run the show alongside Sexton.

The back-row has been a disappointment so far, but Tadhg Beirne adds a real breakdown threat alongside Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander.

It is a strong team on paper and if they can hit the heights they reached against Scotland they will book their place.

The problem in recent times has been the fact that you don't know what to expect from Ireland any more.

Their performance levels were so high for so long, but their consistency has gone out the window and they've gone from expecting to perform to hoping.

If they get it right, they'll win this comfortably.

Their set-piece is better than Samoa's, they are fitter and more organised and with the Islanders talking about throwing caution to the wind Ireland will look to force mistakes and capitalise.

Against Samoa, fronting up is everything and Schmidt has selected a physical team.

"One of the things you want to be talking about is the physicality of the Samoans and that's just an underlying part of rugby," scrum coach Greg Feek, who made his All Black debut against the Islanders, said on Friday.

"If you want to win games, you need to be physical and that's something they bring.

"But Chris Vui and Jack Lam are real smart rugby players too. That's one thing I remember from back then.

"Pat Lam was actually playing in that game. Those are the things that make these things really interesting. You don't want to assume that they're just this or just that.

"They've been training together for a while now and you saw Fiji pull out a cracker against Wales. The longer teams spend together the better they get.

"The players know what's coming and we just have to prepare for that. When I was lucky enough to play against them a couple of years ago, they were like that then."

Having spent time in Samoa in his youth, Schmidt has an emotional connection to the country but he'll be determined that this won't be his Waterloo.

He and his team remain convinced there is a big performance in the tank, that they can take out a big gun and reach the last four. From there, anything is possible.

First, they must beat Samoa, scoring four tries, to remove all doubt about their place in the last eight.

Anything less will further undermine confidence at best and, at worst, send Ireland home.

Others have had their opportunities taken from their hands, Ireland are lucky enough to retain control of their own destiny.

It's imperative that they make the most of that chance and book their place in the quarter-finals.

Verdict: Ireland 28 Samoa 14

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