Saturday 19 October 2019

George Hook: Millennium men can stake claim by beating experimental Wales

Keith Earls: his acceleration off the mark and his ability to cover wing, centre and full-back make him a valuable squad asset, but he also possesses that spark of magic that is capable of unlocking opposition defences
Keith Earls: his acceleration off the mark and his ability to cover wing, centre and full-back make him a valuable squad asset, but he also possesses that spark of magic that is capable of unlocking opposition defences

George Hook

Attempting to figure out the inner workings of Warren Gatland's mind, is akin to trying to solve a Rubik's cube with the coloured stickers removed.

Much has been made of Wales' World Cup preparations in recent weeks, with videos surfacing almost daily of the squad being put through their paces under excruciating conditions.

Wales have been preparing themselves for what has been dubbed the pool of death, alongside the hosts England and Australia.

According to Gatland, the best way to prepare for an autumn World Cup in Europe is to drag his players to a 40-degree climate in the sweltering heat of Qatar.

But maybe Gatland just enjoys making grown men suffer? George North recently described the fitness regimes as going to places 'no man should ever have to go to alone'.

Wales may reap the benefits of that heat-intensive training when the tournament kicks off next month. But, for me, Gatland is trying to eke out an advantage under conditions that will yield very little quantifiable return.

Comforts

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the temperature gauge, Joe Schmidt has opted to keep his players on Irish soil over the past few weeks, affording them the comforts and familiarity of a home camp.

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I've no doubt that the Ireland players have been training at maximum intensity, but it is interesting to note the different approaches of both coaches.

Perhaps Schmidt appreciates the emotional strain that players will go through living away from home for several weeks at a time when the World Cup gets under way. Most of the Ireland squad have young families and there is nothing like the comforts of home to recharge the mind after a heavy few days' training. Sometimes the smartest route to glory is fashioned on a bedrock of consistency and familiarity. Here, Schmidt ticks both boxes.

The Ireland starting XV to play Wales this afternoon offers a handful of players the chance to nail down a place in Schmidt's final 31-man squad. Two players in particular, Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan, have a lot to prove, as both have been sidelined from international duty for several months because of injury.

For me, Earls has to travel. His acceleration off the mark and his ability to cover wing, centre and full-back make him a valuable squad asset, but he also possesses that spark of magic that is capable of unlocking opposition defences.

Ryan also gets the nod to travel in the final squad, edging out Ulster's Dan Tuohy for the last available second-row slot. The Munster lock is a leader of men and a supreme enforcer when the going gets tough. There is something of the mad-dog Irishman in Ryan that is extremely difficult to coach. If back to full fitness, he would definitely be in my final Ireland squad.

Paddy Jackson's return to form at the end of last season could not have come at a better time and the young fly-half looks a more composed and relaxed version of his former self in recent weeks.

Ireland's hopes of making a World Cup semi-final for the first time hinge on Johnny Sexton staying fit, but if Jackson has a good game this afternoon, he may overtake Ian Madigan as first-choice fly-half replacement.

Darren Cave must be doing some miraculous stuff in training to warrant a place in the centre, but unless he picks up a man of the match award in Cardiff, it is hard to see him making the final cut.

Ireland should win this game. Incredibly, Wales have four Test debutants in the starting XV, only weeks before the start of the World Cup. Surely the time for trying out new players was last November's internationals? Or even during the Six Nations campaign? For me, the only one of the four debutants that stands a chance of making Gatland's final squad is Ospreys wing Eli Walker. But for injuries, the 23-year-old would certainly have featured before now.

If Wales get quick ball to their No 14, Walker has both the pace and footwork to give Ireland cause for concern. On his first game back in quite some time, Andrew Trimble will never have a better opportunity to prove his worth.

With places in Schmidt's final squad still up for grabs, I am expecting a few Irish players to stick their hand up for selection. But, as has been the case with the majority of these World Cup warm-up matches down the years, it won't make for pretty viewing.

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