Talisman Healy holds key to Irish hopes
We are nearly through the nasty little period between the reduction of the Rugby World Cup squads to 31 and the start of the tournament. Warm-up games in this lull, however vigorously defended by the coaches, came fraught with peril, no longer a chance to shine, but to be hurt.
Now the squads have a weekend without opposition and have to manage the strange blend of relief, edginess, exhaustion, restlessness, boredom and excitement for a few more days until the start of the real thing on Friday.
Ireland, back-to-back Six Nations champions, are not best known for taking risks. At their best under Joe Schmidt they crank up the pressure without committing errors. Yet they chose to play four warm-up games, one more than most, and go into the tournament with two scrum-halves, Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan.
Ian Madigan, a gifted all-rounder, has been presented as the third, but being able to pass with easy speed off the ground is not the same as scanning the pitch and managing the Ireland strategy. The Madigan option comes into play only if Murray or Reddan becomes unavailable in the 48 hours before a game. And the whole point (presumably) of playing four pre-tournament matches is to be less exposed to injury through heavy training once the World Cup is under way. If you're going flat-out in training in October, you're not going to be winning the prize.
Ireland weren't exactly brilliant in their warm-ups. Perhaps they started too well with a victory over Wales in Cardiff . They managed to look less sure of themselves in Dublin against Scotland and certainly came down with a bump against the fuller Wales. In their final encounter - the truly brave one, away at Twickenham - they looked a bit of everything: raggedly high on the error count; startlingly good at the occasional scrummage; in control in the middle quarters, but on the back foot in the first and last.
That scrummaging against England, with Rory Best back at hooker between Jack McGrath and Mike Ross, would have been a relief in the continued absence of Cian Healy, but it says something about the slightly unreal nature of the preparatory games that the loosehead prop who missed all four games was very much present in Irish thoughts. It has not been Healy's year, ankle and hamstring injuries being mere precursors to surgery to his neck in May.
The pressure is slightly off him now that the tournament is nearly upon us. He is in the squad and in an ideal world would be tearing around in Pool D from the outset (against Canada and then Romania). In all Irish honesty, he is not strictly required until October, for the last two qualifying games against Italy and France. For those, Ireland will have to be at their best and Healy is an essential part of the team.
The Rugby World Cup needs competitive pool matches to enhance its credibility. Pool A, with England, Australia, Wales and Fiji, satisfies at every turn. Pool D could deliver too. The first weekend has France against Italy and four weekends later Ireland play France. Healy needs to be fit for that, on Sunday, October 11 in Cardiff.
France, who showed in Paris against England that they are looking to be true to their promise to play with utter devotion at the World Cup, have an advantage. Between their third Pool D game - against Canada in Milton Keynes - and the fourth, against Ireland, they will have a 10-day rest. Ireland, having played Italy, will have seven.
It's a long way down the road and anything can happen. And probably will to France. But they are not just good at World Cups; they are lucky. Having lost in their pool to Tonga and New Zealand at the last World Cup, they needed a dose of good fortune to beat 14-man Wales. The slight irony in this quest for luck was that in the final they had none in their 8-7 defeat to the All Blacks .
Ireland are not so blessed. They have never been to a semi-final. They haven't played well enough, 2003 apart, to merit a break. This time it is going to be different because these are the Joe Schmidt times, when luck doesn't come into it.
They need nothing more than to be on the hoof and cranking up the pressure, setting those driving mauls, clearing the rucks, excelling at the aerial game launched from the boots of Murray and Jonathan Sexton. For all that, they need Healy. They require no good luck, but they do need their talisman.
Sunday Indo Sport