Sunday 25 February 2018

Time for World Cup hopefuls to deliver or go home

O'Donnell and Cave among players needing to do something special to convince Schmidt

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton during squad training
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton during squad training
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The World Cup becomes a little more real this afternoon, moving from a date on the diary somewhere in the future to the here and now.

For a number of players who will emerge beneath the Millennium Stadium roof today, this might be as good as it gets.

Ireland and Wales will play for a makey-uppy trophy in Cardiff, but the sponsors are not fooling anyone. The result will barely last in the memory - this one is all about performance.

Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland will use the fixture to help them with the process of paring their squads back to the 31 required for the tournament.

By the time the two teams meet again in Dublin in three weeks' time, some of those who play today will already have been informed that they're surplus to requirements. For those near the cut mark, this is moving day.

Of the match-day 23 selected by Schmidt, there are at least 10 players who are in danger of missing out, and the challenge for them is to produce a performance that enhances their individual reputations while contributing to the collective effort.

One of those who, barring injury, is guaranteed a place on the plane is captain Jamie Heaslip, who becomes Ireland's most capped back-row as he leads the team today.

And yet that landmark is bittersweet for the Naas native, who holds the man he is replacing, David Wallace, in high regard. The Munster openside would have won more than his 72 caps had he not suffered a career-ending knee injury in a warm-up game in 2011.


"I've been in a situation where I've trained for a World Cup and not gone (in 2007) and I've been in a situation where I've trained and gone (in 2011), so I've experienced both outcomes that can happen," he said.

"I've also experienced seeing someone who was on the plane, playing the last game and coming to him in the changing-room and he's just had a career-ending injury.

"The only thing I can tell people is just enjoy that moment, and live in that moment. Because ifs, buts and maybes are great things to talk about off the field, but on the field it's all about the now.

"It's a bit up in the air, but that's the way you have to live it and then that's how you enjoy it.

"To paraphrase (Superbowl winning quarter-back) Peyton Manning: 'pressure is for people who are unprepared, who don't know what they are doing'.

"So a lot of lads can take all that (World Cup squad pressure) away, just hammer down their knowledge and know exactly what they have to do and just go out and play. They're good footballers. That's why they're here."

Johnny Sexton (right) joined the squad for the captain's run in Cardiff yesterday to get a taste of the venue where Ireland's World Cup campaign begins against Canada on September 19 and catches fire four weeks later with an expected pool decider against France.

There are four different categories of players in the match-day 23, the first being the likes of Heaslip, Mike Ross, Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson, Eoin Reddan and Rory Best who are certain to be involved next month.

For Richardt Strauss, Michael Bent, Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry, Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan, it is about showing form enough for Schmidt to tick the box beside their names, while for Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble the key is returning to this stage as if they were never away.

The latter pair fall into a separate category along with Fergus McFadden, Felix Jones and Simon Zebo, who are in a desperate fight to join Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe at the World Cup.

With six of the 14 backs places likely to go to half-backs, the outside backs will be squeezed and some excellent players will be left behind.

Elsewhere, it would seem that openside Tommy O'Donnell, inside-centre Darren Cave and today's replacements Dan Tuohy, Dave Kilcoyne and Kieran Marmion need something special to convince Schmidt of their worth.

Those hoping to impress will be thankful that Schmidt has selected such a strong front-row to start, with the ever-present Ross offering a strong attacking platform on his 50th cap.

It's not just places on the plane that are up for grabs, but the pecking order can be affected by performances, with Jackson surely keen to build on his brilliant finish to last season.

A controlled display by the Ulster pivot would give him a head-start over Ian Madigan in the battle to provide back-up to Sexton, while his provincial colleague Henderson will want to put pressure on both Devin Toner and Peter O'Mahony, with Schmidt hoping to give him a run on the blindside if the opportunity presents itself.

And what of Wales? Gatland's team are potential semi-final opponents if things go to plan for Ireland, but a real formline for that game will only be established in three weeks' time when both coaches unveil their full hands.

Today, the men in red are under similar pressure on an individual basis and Ireland will hope to put pressure on the quartet of debutants as well as fly-half James Hook, who is on his last life in a Wales jersey and needs a performance.

Although Schmidt conceded that his team's preparation had been unusually "self-obsessed" in their focus, he is unlikely to have ignored Wales altogether.


Even in these circumstances, the New Zealander will have spotted some area of weakness that can be exploited and it would be no surprise to see makeshift full-back Hallam Amos targeted with the high ball.

However, the coach will also be fascinated by how his men deal with the power and pace in the Welsh backline, with Tyler Morgan and Scott Williams capable of damage against Cave and Earls in the midfield and Eli Walker and Alex Cuthbert offering their own brands of threat out wide.

There is no doubt that the dynamics are skewed on a day where performance undoubtedly outweighs result and the importance of a mistake is magnified by what's at stake.

And watching from his glass cage of perfection in the Millennium Stadium stand is Schmidt himself, marking down the credits and debits, registering each ruck and then reviewing it relentlessly in the video room in the aftermath.

There is no hiding place now as the stakes ratcheting up. The nation's focus may not be fully trained on them yet, but the coach has nothing else on his mind. Time to deliver or go home.

Verdict: Wales

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