Home straight for squad hopefuls
Wales’ visit to Aviva offers Irish players final chance to seal place on Schmidt’s World Cup panel
Before the maths, the match. One last chance to put that hand up and hope Joe Schmidt takes note, a final opportunity to show the New Zealander what you can do and how well you can do it.
Although Schmidt and his management team have said all week that their minds remain open, they have been discussing World Cup squad selection throughout these warm-up games and must have a strong idea as to who will be making their way to England and Wales next month.
Similarly, most of the players must have a decent idea as to where they stand and whether they’ll be getting a call tomorrow evening or Monday morning to inform them whether they’re in or out.
There is no doubt that the coaches have put hours and hours of effort into narrowing down their options and ensuring every base is covered.
They will have worked out each permutation and ensured every risky scenario has been followed through.
Tomorrow they finally decide once and for all.
Today’s game is a worthwhile exercise given the calibre of opponent. Of the three warm-up games to date, this is by far the most challenging.
Warren Gatland has fielded his strongest available Wales team in the knowledge his players must peak during the pool stages or risk elimination.
The first meeting of these teams was a damp squib, but it allowed the shrewd Kiwi to cast-off some players he never intended to bring.
Unlike Schmidt, he has already taken a significant axe to his squad and, when he names his teams to face England and Australia for those crucial pool games next month, it won’t look much different to the side that takes to the Aviva Stadium today.
There are a host of Ireland’s starters who won’t be sitting by their phones anxiously tomorrow, with the focus for Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Iain Henderson, Paul O’Connell and the entire back-row on getting as much quality game-time as possible.
For others, there is far more risk involved. Keith Earls, Dave Kearney, and Luke Fitzgerald can all book their tickets with strong performances, with the trio of Ulster wingers involved against Edinburgh last night in for a nervous afternoon.
Of those, Tommy Bowe’s place seems most assured, while Felix Jones will hope for an extended run to re-gain some ground from Simon Zebo.
Fitzgerald cut a frustrated figure during the win over Scotland and is in for a difficult afternoon playing alongside a new centre partner in Henshaw and opposite Scott Williams.
He shone at times during his stint in the No13 jersey for Leinster last season, a beacon of light in an otherwise stilted attack, but when Ben Te’o returned to fitness he returned to the wing.
While there has long been a public wish to see what Fitzgerald could do in midfield, his coaches appear to prefer him on the wing but a strong defensive performance will do him no harm when the selection meeting begins.
It must be stressful being a
back-three player in the Ireland camp right now, but the props are not having it their own way either.
Nathan White continues to look like Ireland’s 33-year-old World Cup bolter as he makes his second appearance for his adopted country having been excluded from the original squad.
The bulletins on Marty Moore’s foot have been positive, but with Cian Healy set to travel with little gametime under his belt, the Lucan man must fear for his position.
Schmidt hailed White’s experience this week but he has his work cut out against the veteran Welsh loosehead Gethin Jenkins and if he breaks even it could be enough to ink his name on the final squad list.
For Iain Henderson, there is a different challenge. The Ulsterman is handed his second start of the season and has the chance to prove to Schmidt that he can be as effective from the start as he has been as a closer.
With Ireland’s back-row light on barn-storming ball-carriers, the 23-year-old will be tasked with taking the game to Wales, but the head coach’s eyes may well be on the less noticeable aspects of his performance, in particular his lineout display and rucking proficiency.
On the bench, Donnacha Ryan will hope for a decent run and a chance to ease Dan Tuohy out of the picture, while for Tadhg Furlong this is about getting a first cap and some experience under his belt.
The tight exchanges should prove fearsome, with highly rated tighthead prop Tomas Francis making his debut alongside some big hitters in Jenkins, Bradley Davies and Alun-Wyn Jones.
For Ireland’s back-row, this is a chance to match-up to an all-Lions triumverate, with Jordi Murphy facing a real challenge against Justin Tipuric and Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip matching up nicely against Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau.
With both sides fielding their first-choice half-backs, the battle for control of the breakdown will be crucial, while Ireland will want to see significant defensive improvements after an alarming number of missed tackles in the opening two games.
If Murray and Sexton can get their hands on front-foot ball, then they can control the game, but the same can be said of Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar. “The individual match-ups will be really interesting and those
match-ups could be world class,” Schmidt said.
“I don’t think you get much more world class than Paul O’Connell and that’s demonstrated by the longevity he has shown, the number of games and the leadership. Obviously he’s captain of the side and will be playing his last Test at the Aviva and I think it will be a special end for him if we get a good result.
“He’s up against Alun-Wyn Jones, who is world class and I think there’s a number of world-class match-ups and the challenge for some players is to match up on the positive side of the ledger. I think Johnny Sexton versus Dan Biggar, I think Rhys Webb versus Conor Murray, Rob Kearney versus Leigh Halfpenny – they’re very different but both very good at what they do well.
“And you’ve got two very big men, Jamie Roberts, who is established
as a world-class operator, and
Robbie Henshaw, who is fast
heading in that direction but not getting ahead of himself, he’s a
very nailed-on, low-key individual.
“So we will get some good feedback from individuals but collectively the core of that Welsh team have been together since that last World Cup, where they were so impressive, and the core of our team have been together, certainly through the last two years and before that.
“I just hope it’s a cracking day and touch wood everyone comes out of it on both sides of the ledger; both the red and the green team get through without injury to springboard themselves a little closer to the World Cup.”
It was clear that O’Connell won’t be dwelling too much on his own ‘long goodbye’, even though he indulged in a little nostalgia at the Captain’s Run press conference.
Today is about the immediate future. For him and a select few, it is about being ready for the World Cup kick-off in three weeks time, for a host of others it is about ensuring they are still involved after the selection meetings take place.
Schmidt will be watching closely to see who handles the pressure best and will] select his 31-man squad accordingly.