Friday 23 March 2018

Tony Ward: Scots clash gives Simon Zebo chance to prove that he is the real deal

'What Zebo offers, however, is that 'X-factor' – that Eoin Reddan/ Ian Madigan-type impact off the bench'
'What Zebo offers, however, is that 'X-factor' – that Eoin Reddan/ Ian Madigan-type impact off the bench'
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

A total of 14 changes from the run-on team that blitzed the Welsh in Cardiff as Ireland prepare for Round 2 of their World Cup preparation against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium this evening.

Yet the side only contains six - Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Luke Fitzgerald, Mike Ross, Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien - of the first choice line-up that made it back-to-back Six Nations titles against the Scots in Murrayfield back in March.

Coach Vern Cotter includes four - all up front - from the Scottish team that day.

For Joe Schmidt, this is the last genuine opportunity to experiment before the real team- building process for the opening pool game begins in the return clash with the Welsh in Dublin a fortnight from today.


What we witnessed in Cardiff was a strength in depth reflecting a well-tutored, highly conditioned, firmly focussed squad, who really get what this series of games and meticulous build-up is all about.

Of course, hammering Wales in early August - the final score did not reflect the gulf in understanding and organisation - means nothing unless we hit the ground running against the Canadians in the same stadium on September 19.

We must then peak against the Italians and French if we are to finish on top in Pool D.

As it was at the Millennium Stadium for some of the 23 involved a week ago, so it is for those on match duty today.

It is effectively their World Cup final as they bid to make the 31-man cut set to leave for England on August 31.

Even some of the more mature members are feeling the heat as Schmidt and Les Kiss get ready to call the shots.

You can take it as read that even the most established stars, who will not enter the warm-up process until the game against the Welsh on August 29, are feeling that knot in the stomach at what is going on all around them right now.

Equals in training they may be, but being on the perimeter come match time is not a comfortable place to be, irrespective of who you are or what you have achieved in the game to date.

That is the Schmidt mantra and this group - potentially our best and certainly our deepest squad ever - recognise that reality only too well.

So, what about today?

Despite Warren Gatland's typically grudging post-match assessment of Ireland's structured performance and playing style, expect more of the same from those filling jerseys one to 23 this evening.

The systems will remain the same and whatever new plays may be in place come pool time and the competition proper, they will stay in cold storage for the moment.

I think, even in modern game parlance, that's called basic common sense.

As in Cardiff, there is no form to draw on going into today's warm-up.

''If anything, despite the overhaul in personnel, we are at a major advantage with that one game under our belts.

But the home advantage and the nature of last week's win ratchets up the pressure even higher.

Schmidt and his backroom staff would want it no other way. Handling the weight of public expectation is but one, albeit it very important part, of the build- up process.

In individual terms, what are we looking for from today's clash?

Starting at the very back, the selection of Simon Zebo excites. This is a huge game for the extrovert utility back.

As things stand, Felix Jones is in pole position as back up to Rob Kearney in the last line. I thought the Munster full-back put in an impressive shift, particularly in attacking terms, against the Welsh.

What Zebo offers, however, is that 'X-factor' - that Eoin Reddan/ Ian Madigan-type impact off the bench.

Were Zebo to deliver at full- back today, it could make the back three selection that bit more comfortable for the main man come August 31.


The stakes are massive too for Gordon D'Arcy, Dave Kilcoyne Dan Tuohy, Devin Toner and Jack Conan.

I'll not comment too much on Conan other than to say he is where he deserves to be. Yes he is raw - but don't underestimate his late run up the rails in the least.

Whether at No 6 or No 8, plus that all-important extra line-out option, Conan is the business.

Beyond that, Sean O'Brien, Madigan, possibly D'Arcy and Zebo at eight, 10, 12 and 15 respectively, could well reflect the head coach's back-up thinking in those positions at this point in time.

Certainly for Darcy and Zebo it looks like make-or-break.

The Scottish game is usually open and fluid and you can take Schmidt to trump fellow Kiwi Cotter and make it two from two.

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