Tuesday 24 October 2017

Pressure on Gordon D'Arcy with race for World Cup places hotting up

Ireland will hope to keep momentum going against Scotland after promising Cardiff start

Ireland v Scotland
Ireland v Scotland
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

There are 160 minutes of playing time left to impress Joe Schmidt and, with more changes expected in two weeks' time, no guarantee of a second chance, so for the Ireland players this afternoon it is all about seizing chances.

A week after a comprehensive opening win over Wales in Cardiff, Mike Ross and his 14 new team-mates have a chance to sustain momentum as the World Cup edges ever nearer.

While Schmidt publicly doesn't entertain the notion that there are players whose place on the plane is safe, there are a number of front-liners who have earned his trust and can rest easy if they get through until the end of the month unscathed.

However, those in the most competitive positions have a job on their hands to force the coach's hand, none more so than Gordon D'Arcy who is a man in need of a big performance if his 82nd cap isn't to be his last.

The 35-year-old will retire after the World Cup, but his performance today will go a long way to determining whether he goes out in a green jersey or playing for Leinster.

Robbie Henshaw established himself as first-choice inside centre during last season, while D'Arcy's partner today, Jared Payne, has made the No 13 jersey his own.

Much depends on the maths. Schmidt is likely to take 14 backs, six of whom may be scrum-halves and out-halves with Ian Madigan's ability to cover the inside centre berth perhaps lessening the need for another specialist.

Darren Cave, who was retained in the Six Nations squad after D'Arcy was left out, went well last weekend, while Keith Earls demonstrated an ability to cover the outside centre position in Cardiff.

With Henshaw likely to start the last remaining warm-up game before Schmidt picks his final 31-man squad against Wales in a fortnight's time, D'Arcy might not get another window of opportunity.

"We were talking about it the other day, 16 years now he's been putting the green jersey on, which is phenomenal," assistant coach Les Kiss said after yesterday's Captain's Run.

"One of the key things is that Darce knows how he works, he knows what he has to deliver.

"It hasn't stopped him in any way being able to be working with the younger guys and the group around him and he's been contributing very strongly in that area, which reflects on the fact that he knows this is a team game.

"If he is to shine he has to be able to deliver in the systems and that wisdom, I think, will serve him well.

"That experience that he does bring, it's only relevant if it's not just for him and he's wise enough to know that.

"He understands what Scotland are about too, he's been around long enough, they're a team that have bloody dangerous players and he's done his work in understanding how they throw themselves into the starter plays.

Strong

"They're very strong and they can really narrow you up and suddenly they can actually shift it wide in the next play, so he's brought his experience in terms of understanding how that works and how we deliver in that area defensively.

"So across the board he's just doing what he has to do and he's done it in a quiet way but in a deliberate manner to make sure that the backline does function very well.

"He knows that it won't be just about him having a great game, it's about the team as well."

Although Vern Cotter hasn't fielded his first-choice team, his old colleague is expecting a stiff test from a Scotland team who ran everyone bar Ireland close during a Six Nations in which they claimed the Wooden Spoon.

Schmidt has expressed his disappointment in the challenge presented by an undercooked Wales last weekend and it appears to have undermined the gains players made on the day.

While D'Arcy's role will be closely watched, Simon Zebo is another with much to prove at full-back after an exciting cameo on the wing against the Welsh. Felix Jones has been a Schmidt favourite and played well last week, but with Rob Kearney the undisputed No 1, it may be a luxury to bring a second out-and-out full-back with the numbers as they are. Ian Madigan is another who can silence some doubts by controlling the game and nailing his kicks, with his kicking from the hand a particular focus.

Up front, Dave Kilcoyne needs a big performance in a scrum that will be expected to provide a solid platform for those looking to impress. Dan Tuohy could do with a strong display, while Jack Conan has nothing to lose on debut alongside experienced operators Chris Henry and Seán O'Brien who will help him along the way.

There will be different pressures on the men introduced off the bench, with Paul O'Connell easing his way into the new season as the likes of Dave Kearney, Paddy Jackson and new cap Nathan White needing to impress.

Like last weekend, the game plan is likely to be simple with a focus on the set-piece, while Kiss and Schmidt will hope for an improvement in defence after Ireland leaked three tries against Wales.

If they can sustain the intensity then they can continue their winning start.

Verdict: Ireland

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