Sunday 15 September 2019

Time to call for the cavalry: Five players who can help ease Ireland's Rugby World Cup fears

'A traditional No 8 in the best possible sense, Conan offers Ireland speed off the base of the scrum and a threat around the park with his excellent running lines and free hands.' Photo: Sportsfile
'A traditional No 8 in the best possible sense, Conan offers Ireland speed off the base of the scrum and a threat around the park with his excellent running lines and free hands.' Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Form may be temporary, but so are World Cup campaigns. Ireland need players who are fit, available and firing when they begin their campaign against Scotland on September 22 and on Saturday's evidence they have a slew of players who are off the mark.

With back-to-back warm-up games against Wales between now and the plane leaving for Japan in just over two weeks' time, there is a small amount of time for players to find form and prove that they are ready.

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Saturday's trip to Cardiff will provide an opportunity for redemption for some campaigners, but others will be given a shot at showing that they are the form players who can hit the ground running at the World Cup.

Joe Schmidt has said he's keeping an open mind with regard to selection and that reputation will count for little.

None of those waiting on the margins are new faces and there is no silver bullet, but an energetic, accurate performance at the Principality Stadium would help point Ireland in the right direction. And there are five men waiting in the wings who could provide that spark.

Jack Conan

There is a risk of the Wicklow native becoming something of a cause celebre outside the camp, yet the No 8 has so much to offer in terms of ball-carrying and game-breaking that was so lacking in the Irish set-up last Saturday.

Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander all had poor games in the face of England's power game, and there is an argument that few teams can live with Eddie Jones' men when they're at that level, but there is certainly scope for the Irish back-row to improve.

A traditional No 8 in the best possible sense, Conan offers Ireland speed off the base of the scrum and a threat around the park with his excellent running lines and free hands.

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There have been glimpses of the team trying to introduce a more varied attacking game and his skill-set fits the bill nicely.

Concerns about his work-rate have faded and he has a proven capacity to deliver at big moments of big games.

A suspected ankle injury has held him back thus far, but he needs to be unleashed on Wales.

James Ryan

He may only be 23 and at the outset of his third full season as an international, but the Leinster second-row is already the kind of player Ireland can't do without.

With the other half of his bash-brothers combination, Dan Leavy, sadly sidelined it is up to Ryan to set the physical tone for his team in defence, in attack and at the breakdown.

As a lineout forward, he is still developing as a leader and as a caller but he adds a presence to an Irish unit that was bullied by Maro Itoje and George Kruis last weekend.

Injecting Ryan's energy into the forward pack would help address many of the issues we saw in London.

Robbie Henshaw

Rarely has Joe Schmidt been able to choose between his three top centres, but right now Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose are showing signs of real vulnerability.

Step forward Henshaw, who was supposed to play at Twickenham, but came out of last Monday's training session sore and was withdrawn.

So, he should be brought into the team this week and will add assurance, physicality and nous on both sides of the ball.

Aki has many strengths, but opposition coaches believe he can be drawn into making bad defensive decisions and Jones exploited that last weekend. Henshaw is a better decision-maker and will inject life into a passive defensive line.

Pairing him with Chris Farrell could offer Schmidt the kind of raw physicality in midfield that's been missing in 2019.

Keith Earls

There wasn't much Jordan Larmour could do when he was left one on one with the much bigger Joe Cokanasiga and the young Leinster star still has a role to play in the months to come, but Earls is a player others look to in this team.

He may be the wrong side of 30, but he has shown no signs of slowing down in recent seasons and can bring energy and attitude to the Irish back-three.

Indications are that Ireland are belatedly look to embellish their kick-return attack and there are few more dangerous broken-field runners out there than Earls who will relish the chance to pick through defences rather than looking for contact.

The country's record try-scorer at World Cups, he has a proven capacity to thrive on the biggest stage.

Niall Scannell

The lineout played a major role in the scale of Saturday's defeat and all aspects of that set-piece are up for discussion.

More than most, this team draw succour from their work out of touch. It is the prime weapon for attack and when it goes wrong things get ugly.

Rory Best's rivals now have an opportunity to stake their own claim to wear the No 2 jersey in Japan and Munster's Scannell is primed to step in and step up in Cardiff.

He is not a full-court all-rounder in the mould of Dane Coles or Jamie George, but he is good in the loose and is a tidy thrower who smashes rucks, makes his tackles and mauls well.

If the set-piece runs well and he contributes around the park, it'll have been a good day at the office.

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