Monday 23 April 2018

Time for Schmidt’s men to bare their teeth

Ireland need to hit ground running by making most of their set-piece superiority and crushing Canadians

Ireland back-row Jamie Heaslip shares a joke with Joe Schmidt at yesterday’s Captain’s Run in the Millennium Stadium
Ireland back-row Jamie Heaslip shares a joke with Joe Schmidt at yesterday’s Captain’s Run in the Millennium Stadium
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Teams with genuine ambitions of winning World Cups don't worry about the likes of Canada, they just beat them and move on.

If Ireland are to contend at the business end of this tournament, they should put 50 or more points on the North Americans, do the same against Romania and then focus on the serious business of Italy and France, who meet tonight at Twickenham.

For all that the team and management are talking up their opponents, the reality is stark for the 19th-ranked team in the world, who have just three starting players who play in one of the game's elite leagues.

Seriously

By naming such a strong team, Ireland have shown how seriously they are taking this game.

Robbie Henshaw's injury might have robbed Joe Schmidt of some firepower, but he can still name his first-choice pack, with Iain Henderson brought in for added oomph.

Behind the scrum, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will direct operations and the outside backs have the capacity to cause Canada's backline plenty of headaches.

It might not happen all at once, they may need to be patient, but if they stick to their task and play at Six Nations levels of intensity and accuracy, then Ireland should blow the Canucks away.

The European champions have steadfastly refused to talk about their grand ambitions for this tournament, repeating their 'one game at a time' mantra, but they must harbour a desire to lift the Webb Ellis cup on October 31.

They start their journey in familiar surrounds of a near-full Millennium Stadium - which will be green for the day - against a team who have never beaten them.

Schmidt has remained positive despite losing the final two warm-up games against Wales and England, content that his charges can turn it on when the real business begins.

IRELAND TEAM FIXTURES 2018

Date / Time Teams

Canada will provide a stubborn, physical opposition, but their set-piece weakness is there to be exposed and few teams capitalise on dominant scrums and lineouts as well as Ireland.

The Canadians have plenty of ball-players with Sevens experience and hope to catch the eye with their expansive play, but their tendency to off-load should invite Ireland into the game, and Schmidt's team of analysts will have primed the players to capitalise.

Ireland trained at the Millennium Stadium yesterday on a day when four teams ran out at the Cardiff venue, with Wales and Uruguay also getting a workout beneath the roof.

When Ireland return for their final pool game against France in three weeks' time the stakes will be higher but the conditions will be familiar. They played beneath the closed roof against Wales in the warm-ups and again today they'll experience the unique climate.

"It is unbelievably hot, which you think it is going to be really dry, but if you get the support that will be there tomorrow it can get pretty humid and, at times, the ball will be slippy," Jamie Heaslip said yesterday.

"I really like it, it adds to the atmosphere and it can get really, really loud sometimes so it will be a really great day. I have had some good days there and some pretty low days so hopefully we are going to get the outcome that we want."

The Canadians followed Ireland into the press room and, while accepting that they have a job on their hands, their coach Kieran Crowley - a World Cup-winning All Black in 1987 - said his side were here to get the result.

"We're here to win," he said. "You don't go out to keep score down. Ireland are obviously huge favourites, but we've done all our prep, we've worked hard in the build-up and focused on the key areas so we can go out and give it one hell of a crack.

"We'll analyse it at the end of the game. We're not here to make up the numbers.

"You have got to create pressure to create doubts. If we get chances, we have to take them."

Alongside him, captain Jamie Cudmore spoke of Canada playing their own game and not necessarily needing to unsettle Ireland, but the 37-year-old knows that he needs to get under the Ireland forwards' skin from the off.

With Rob Kearney revealing that Schmidt has been playing tapes of the 2007 near-disasters against Namibia and Georgia, it is clear that Ireland are wary of a banana skin.

If the coach is publicly warning "some" players that they need to buck up, you can be sure that internally the message will be hitting home.

A swathe of fresh faces will be pressed into service against Romania next Sunday so the players involved today know that they need to impress to be back in the team against Italy and France.

Then there are the form picks, with Keith Earls, Dave Kearney and Henderson hoping to carry their momentum into the tournament.

For Murray and Sexton, it is about building a rhythm.

Ireland's attack has not been at its best since Brian O'Driscoll's retirement, but the performance at Murrayfield offered real hope that they can dominate teams on the ground as well as in the air.

With a strong set-piece platform, they will look to take the Canadians through the phases and spot weaknesses.

Schmidt has hailed Canada's ability to hang in there through long passages, but all those tackles will take their toll - particularly if their scrum is going backwards and their lineout is under pressure.

The Ireland coach will want to see improved levels of both accuracy and aggression, particularly at the ruck.

Canada will look to disrupt Ireland's possession as much as possible and are guaranteed to be aggressive, so the favourites will need to hold their discipline and stay on the right side of referee Glen Jackson.

Drilled

Having got on the wrong side of the Kiwi official on their last visit to Cardiff in the opening warm-up against Wales, Schmidt is sure to have drilled home the message this week.

"We're just going to worry about ourselves. I'm not going to tell anybody else to worry about the ref. Worry about our job and take that stuff out of the ref's hands," Heaslip said.

"As players, you obviously do your analysis of the ref because he's a pretty big figure in the game. As a team, you try and see if they have any traits or are particularly hot on anything but you worry more about yourself.

"You don't want the ref involved, you just want to paint good pictures around rucks or mauls or carries or whatever and take his decisions out of the game."

With a playing base of around 25,000, the Canadians are growing their game through Sevens and from next year the circuit will take in Vancouver.

Many of their players, like talented flanker John Moonlight, double up in the shortened game and their skill-sets should be strong.

Still, Fiji scored seven tries against them two weeks ago and, while Ireland's attacking play is more structured, Schmidt shouldn't have to delve too deep into his box of tricks to break them down.

Defensively, Ireland will want to improve on their warm-up problems but the fact that this is the World Cup proper should help focus the minds enough to cut out the missed one-on-one tackles.

While other contenders are faced with difficult openers, Ireland can grow into the tournament but they need to start as they mean to go on and pick up as few bad habits as possible.

If they can hit the ground running and set the tone by beating Canada comfortably, then it will stand them in good stead in the weeks to come.

Verdict: Ireland

Irish Independent

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