Friday 18 October 2019

Tony Ward: 'If Larmour performs well today, Schmidt will have a tough call to make over Kearney'

Amid all the chaos of cancelled games and typhoons in Japan, Joe will need clear head to make big decisions for quarter-finals

Jordan Larmour during Ireland Rugby squad training session at Shirouzuoike Park in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: Sportsfile
Jordan Larmour during Ireland Rugby squad training session at Shirouzuoike Park in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I'm not sure if my own feelings are reflective of many out there but as a global sporting event Japan 2019 has, thus far, failed to float my boat. Aside from our debacle when losing to the host nation, which has nothing whatsoever to do with my overall perception, the competition has been entirely predictability.

And it's a farce that when we come to the first meaningful weekend of the four-yearly tournament - the round set to determine the quarter-final pairings - the organisers declare two games null and void, sorry cancelled.

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Yes, it is extremely difficult to predict the elements but, come on, it's the typhoon season in Japan and there's no Plan B in place to get the requisite matches played. You couldn't make it up.

It reflects poorly on World Rugby, on Rugby World Cup, on the host nation (who we all want to see prosper and develop further as a rugby-playing stronghold) and more than anything on the game itself as a truly professional global product.

The uncertainty surrounding this weekend is nothing short of shambolic. We cannot battle the elements but surely it is not asking too much of the organisers and decision-makers that they plan for EVERY eventuality in advance accordingly.

To think that there is even the remotest possibility of a team, any team, having to return home because of the inability to stage a World Cup match beggars belief.

But back to the action on the pitch or so we hope. Our knockout tournament effectively begins today with our last-16 game against Samoa at the Fukuoka Prefecture.

And, please, can we banish this nonsense about hidden game-plans and secret moves. There are no concealed ace cards.

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Joe Schmidt is a successful coach and master tactician because of his ability to read the next opponent and carry out his prep work meticulously.

On the assumption we get through today, and irrespective of whether it be South Africa or New Zealand in the quarter- final, Schmidt will plan his strategy and his 'moves' accordingly.

He will base his game-plan on the make-up of the opposition allied to the individual strengths of his own players. Same now as it has always been, so please may we be spared the 'holding-back' theories.

And in that key respect is today the day to unleash the Full Monty? The fabled 'up the sleeve' line being peddled since the World Cup warm-up friendlies has run its course.

Schmidt and his management have put together close to the strongest combination at this point in time.

Clearly, Peter O'Mahony is under pressure (although he would still be in my starting line-up for a quarter-final game), hence Tadhg Beirne's selection in the back-row as a third lineout alternative out of touch.

With Rhys Ruddock playing his best rugby ever and Garry Ringrose also back close to his best, it would mark blindside flank and outside centre as the two areas most under the spotlight.

Before the tournament kicked off, in the final friendly at home to the Welsh, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw were the most effective centre pairing of the various combinations tried.

That said, Ringrose is back close to his best and were Henshaw, in this maiden World Cup run, to produce anything close to that Welsh form then it would have to be Henshaw wearing No 12 with Ringrose at No 13 going forward.

As for the back-row, I still favour the O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander combination given that Jack Conan is out of the equation, with the on-fire Ruddock, alongside Beirne, as cover for the back-five forward positions.

The other key change, and potentially the most significant, is in the last line where the rock-solid Rob Kearney lacks Jordan Larmour's brazenness and guile on the counter or, indeed, when hitting the line.

Schmidt's moral courage will be tested, obviously pending Larmour's performance against the Samoans, when it comes to making that critical full-back call against the Springboks or All Blacks in a week's time.

Ahead of today's kick-off, I would see the jerseys numbered six, 13, 16, 19 and 20 as those most exposed to possible change.

Specifically, it would mean O'Mahony, Ringrose, Seán Cronin (technically not as well-equipped as Niall Scannell but with much more explosive impact off the bench), Beirne and Ruddock wearing those numbers respectively in the quarter-final.

The Larmour-over-Kearney call will make for a severe test of the head coach, in what could prove his final game.

Outside of Johnny Sexton, there is no player in whom Schmidt continues to place greater faith than Kearney. I get that.

But if we are to break the quarter-final glass ceiling Schmidt must turn to Larmour, backed up by Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jacob Stockdale and Ringrose.

Obviously today's performance - at individual and unit level - will have a big impact in what lies immediately ahead for the coach.

He did make some reference to the typhoon being a distraction ahead of this Samoan shoot-out.

Park it, Joe.

We've had a nine-day turnaround since that abject display against the Russians and at least another week to come if we get through today.

Let's cut the mystique, trample the fear and play from the heart.

Nobody is suggesting a forced-pass agenda but can we please, when it is appropriate, take on the Islanders in their own game of derring-do.

We have the skill set, we have the individuals - all we need is the will. We are much better rugby players than the rest of the watching world gives us credit for.

We're back on the dance floor now - let's dance.

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