Wednesday 24 July 2019

Tony Ward picks his XV for Canada clash: Joe Schmidt must roll out big guns

Don’t write off Tommy Bowe yet, but Dave Kearney has earned his place on the wing
Don’t write off Tommy Bowe yet, but Dave Kearney has earned his place on the wing
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

With just three days to go to the big kick-off, the nation holds its breath in the hope that the real Ireland, the Six Nations champions, will finally stand up.

I'm as confused as anyone. I don't believe we deliberately under-performed in the final two warm-up games, but equally I have little doubt that some of our attacking moves have been kept under wraps.

England World Cup winner Ben Kay has weighed in, saying he is "convinced the Irish have slowed their preparations during the warm-up games", and he is right.

But I feel he is off the mark in claiming that there is a strategy aimed at peaking towards the climax of the Pool, specifically the big one against the French in the Millennium Stadium on October 11.

That would be the dream scenario, but such luxuries don't exist in a World Cup.

Ireland have been gifted the ideal draw, but intensity doesn't come with a switch. That's something the All Blacks preach: you can't turn on and off your intensity depending on who you are playing. It has to be there all the time.

Ireland's warm-up series has gone better than it did in 2007, but it has been mixed.

Our best performance was against the Welsh at Cardiff in the opener.

Downhill

We were average against the Scots, and things went downhill in the two games after that. Losing those final matches doesn't matter, but underperforming does - it chips away at the confidence within a squad.

However, the warm-ups were useful in providing much-needed game-time, and Ireland came through the four matches relatively unscathed, save for the injury to Tommy O'Donnell - contrast that with the two key injuries the Welsh suffered.

But I'm not sure what Joe Schmidt can have learned from the four matches. If anything, they provided more questions than answers. Try these:

What is our best back three?

Who can supply the Brian O'Driscoll spark?

What is the best midfield combination?

Is Paddy Jackson or Ian Madigan the better out-half cover for Johnny Sexton?

Who is the third loosehead in the squad, and will Cian Healy establish match fitness?

Devin Toner or Iain Henderson to pack down alongside Paul O'Connell?

Is Chris Henry worth his place in the search for a different back-row dynamic entirely?

Are we capable of playing the type of off-loading game all but guaranteed by the southern hemisphere sides in the coming weeks?

Martin O'Neill is often criticised for not knowing his best XI; right now, can we be sure Schmidt knows his run-on Ireland XV?

Maybe that is no bad thing, but if I were in charge and looking to peak for the France game, my aim would be to get my best XV on the field early.

Of course, that best XV might change over the next few weeks, but I would hold nothing back against Canada in Cardiff and put out the team that I would field if we were playing France.

As back-to-back Six Nations champions, I would look to make a World Cup statement from the off.

The alternative is to mix and match in the opening two games, thereby kicking the can of uncertainty further down the road.

The Romanian match offers room to manoeuvre and should be treated as such, providing we deliver the same level of intensity irrespective of some changed personnel.

It must not be seen as an opportunity to give everyone involved a run. The key decisions for Schmidt are the back three, loosehead and lock.

I wouldn't write off Tommy Bowe, but based on the evidence of the warm-up games, I would go with Dave Kearney and Simon Zebo on the wings.

Henderson gets my vote ahead of Toner in the engine room, and I would stick with Jack McGrath at loosehead, with Cian Healy on the bench.

Tony Ward's XV to face Canada: (15-9) Rob Kearney, Dave Kearney, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray; (1-8) Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip.

Irish Independent

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