Thursday 19 September 2019

Wales warm-up can be a World Cup launch pad for opening clash against Scotland

Schmidt aims to use final prep run as a platform to hit the ground running

Rory Best goes through a lineout drill at Carton House yesterday ahead of Ireland's final World Cup warm-up game. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Rory Best goes through a lineout drill at Carton House yesterday ahead of Ireland's final World Cup warm-up game. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The controversy over squad selections is fading and the realisation that Ireland's opening World Cup match in Japan is only 18 days away will focus the minds at Carton House and beyond.

Any lingering sympathies with Devin Toner and Co will be parked ahead of Saturday's final warm-up match against Wales.

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It is at once a farewell to Joe Schmidt and Rory Best and a key fixture for assessing the squad's form ahead of the tournament.

The coach will start Johnny Sexton and he's likely to be joined in the team by Cian Healy, Keith Earls and Robbie Henshaw, who are all fit again. The coach said Joey Carbery may yet feature off the bench, but that seems unlikely.

From the outset of these World Cup warm-ups it seemed likely that Schmidt would press close to his strongest possible team into service.

This one is about building momentum through performance and familiarity through combinations.

The players are fresh and fit after a lengthy, intensive pre-season and the coach has talked about tapering the workload to be able to arrive in Japan ready to start strong.

Wales are also likely to name their strongest side ahead of their opening fixture against Georgia.

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Warren Gatland's men then take on Australia six days later, so they'll need to be primed for two tough games in a short period of time.

Likewise, Ireland's campaign hinges on that first week when they face Scotland and Japan.

So far, the warm-ups have been a mixed bag with little to shout about.

Saturday's win over Wales in Cardiff was an improved performance, but the weakness of the line-up Gatland fielded means it is hard to read much into it.

This week should tell its own tale.

With Healy fit again, he's likely to join Best and Tadhg Furlong in the front-row, while one presumes that Iain Henderson will get another shot at calling the lineout while building familiarity with James Ryan in the second-row.

Again, the back-row will be worth watching. Will Peter O'Mahony back up three weeks in-a-row or will we see CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan combine? Could Rhys Ruddock be involved?

There are fewer questions behind the scrum, where Conor Murray will reunite with Sexton, while a decision over Henshaw's partner in the centre will be interesting. Bundee Aki was on media duties yesterday and Garry Ringrose has featured in all three warm-up games, but the Connacht man may be kept in reserve as an impact replacement.

Out wide, Earls is likely to be joined by Rob Kearney and Jacob Stockdale in the first-choice back-three as Schmidt looks to get as many of his starters on to the pitch together as possible.

That's because he wants to hit the ground running in two and a half weeks' time when they kick off their campaign with their two hardest pool matches within six days.

"We've got to get through those first two games, they're monumental for us," Schmidt said yesterday. "Japan have an eight-day turnaround, we have a six-day turnaround and we know how complicated that will be to get up for if we lose to Scotland.

"Scotland, when you match it up man to man, they have a very similar squad and you only need one loose ball for Stuart Hogg to grab and get away... they've got so much quality.

"From that perspective, we tried to give ourselves the best balance (in the squad)."

For the second successive week, Schmidt moved himself up the press conference order at Carton House and, unsurprisingly, his squad dominated discussion.

Although he admitted Dan Leavy is a loss, he said he was happy with the depth of his panel across the board.

As the showpiece event looms large, one of the key concerns for Irish fans is the way in which Ireland were blown away by England twice and, to a lesser extent Wales, this year.

To the untrained eye, the game appears to have lurched in favour of powerful teams over the more strategic thinkers and Schmidt has certainly favoured younger, more dynamic options in his squad.

Yet he doesn't quite agree with the idea that this is a new phenomenon.

"I think the game can shift in six months, let alone 12 months, so you're trying to cover as many different ways of playing the game as possible because you want to be able to exert pressure in as many ways as possible," he said.

"So, yeah, the dynamic power game that some teams have, I don't think that's a shift. I mean that was Wales that we always knew.

"Wales in the last World Cup averaged 106kgs (16st, 10lbs) per man and that's gargantuan by our standards and they will be big on Saturday as well, physically.

"We are used to coping against teams that are physically bigger than we are, but it can be attritional and it can be physically sapping for players.

"We want to make sure we can physically compete, no matter what way our opponents play, and at the same time, we can impose a little bit of pressure on them by being able to mix up the way we play."

The schedule leading in to the World Cup may be an unforgiving one, but it is designed to prepare the players to be ready to face the Scots, who yesterday showed their own hand as Gregor Townsend named an impressive squad for the upcoming tournament.

It's all becoming very real and the shadow boxing of the previous warm-up games, which were affected by differing training schedules, should go out the window as everybody hones in on the final prize.

The oft-repeated mantra that warm-up games don't matter can be parked for a couple of days.

Having named the squad and got all of the debate and recrimination over and done with, Schmidt can now completely focus on blending his 31 chosen ones into the tightest unit possible so they will be ready to perform in Japan.

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