Saturday 24 March 2018

Focused Ireland look for further progress

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Keith Earls will be anxious to get among the try-scorers
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt led his team out of their St George's Park bubble yesterday and back into the maelstrom.

Tonight, when England and Wales clash at Twickenham, Ireland may feel the tremors across London at their base in Wembley. The world awaits them, but the biggest games are still weeks away.

Tomorrow, they dip their toe in the World Cup waters again and will hope for more of the same against Romania.

By full-time at Wembley Stadium, the coach will have used 30 of his 31 man squad, with Robbie Henshaw expected to join the party next weekend at the Olympic Stadium against Italy.

Having not trained fully all week, the coach held the Connacht centre back for another seven days, to reduce the risk of making his injured hamstring worse.

The talk in the camp was that if this was France or Italy, he could have played.

Likewise, Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony and Iain Henderson sit this one out after picking up knocks against Canada, but are expected to come back in next weekend.

After causing France problems, Romania fear that Schmidt's smarts and Ireland's strengths combined with a four-day turnaround can hurt them more than the blunt instruments employed by Les Bleus on Wednesday night.


The meticulous Schmidt will have watched that game in detail and has pin-pointed the ruck, scrum and lineout as the pillars on which this game will be won.


Date / Time Teams

He has made some interesting selections, keeping Jared Payne in the centre in order to allow Keith Earls to build on his impressive showing against Wales, while picking Ian Madigan ahead of Paddy Jackson at No 10.

The pack is named along expected lines, with Cian Healy making his first start since April alongside Richardt Strauss and Nathan White, and Jamie Heaslip leading the side from No 8.

There is an opportunity for Devin Toner to respond to Iain Henderson's barnstorming start to the season as he partners Donnacha Ryan in the second-row, while Jordi Murphy and Chris Henry will be expected dominate the Romanians on the deck all day.

Perhaps the most interesting factor will be how Ireland deal with referee Craig Joubert, who whistled them off the park in their defeat to Wales in pre-season.

As much as Schmidt expects his players to learn from that experience, the coach hopes the South African referee - who took charge of the World Cup final in 2011 - will do the same.

"I hope it's mutual really, to be honest," the coach said, highlighting one incident when Joubert didn't go to the television match official to Ireland's cost.

"At scrum time, the following match, when Wales played Italy and we played England there was a massive contrast and they refereed very differently.

"One of the advantages is that Craig is a world-class referee, he's right at the top of the game and he did the last World Cup final.

"He'd have seen what Romania are doing at scrum time because he was an assistant on Wednesday evening; he's a referee that does very good, thorough preparation coming into the match and I've no doubt he'll give us an indication of what he expects of us and he'll do the same for the Romanians."

The Oaks' Welsh coach Lynn Howells said this week that he fears what Ireland might be able to do and, while he presumably breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the number of front-liners Schmidt left out of his side, he knows full well the quality that the stand-ins bring to the table.

Romania did a number on France's scrum, but the feeling in the Irish camp is that their methods weren't entirely legal, while their disruption of Les Bleus' attacking lineout was negated by some sloppy play on their own ball.

That's where Toner will come in. While Henderson's headline-grabbing performances have him pencilled into most people's teams to play France, Toner has a lot of what Schmidt would call "stock in the bank".

"I think there's going to be more lineout pressure. I do think they'll go after us in the air a lot more than Canada did," Schmidt said.

"That's a massive strength that Devin can offer for us. It's not just in his ability to contest the lineout but his ability to call some really positive options.

"Dev is a very effective ball carrier. If we can get him onto the front foot. . . he's 126kg; that takes a fair bit of taking down.

"If he can offer us that, he's been working hard on his defence. I know you'll probably recall Joe Marler slipping his tackle and getting in behind us at one stage when Conor (Murray) got knocked over as a result.

"He's been working really hard on his front-foot defence, so if we get those three aspects from him . . . he'll be satisfied if he can deliver on those things."

Romania's team was named midway through Schmidt's briefing with the journalists from the daily newspapers yesterday and he used the Irish Independent's laptop to sift through their changes.

What struck you most was that the Kiwi had a thorough knowledge of each of their squad options despite earlier lamenting the Oaks' decision not to play too many warm-up games, which limited his footage.

We won't go through his player-by-player guide in depth, but he didn't appear to think that they'll be overly weakened by the eight changes, even if the absence of Perpignan prop Mihai Lazar detracts from their scrum.

Four days after their manful efforts against France, the Romanians are unlikely to be able to keep pace with the European champions and they will look to slow down the ball going to Madigan and his outside backs.

Conversely, Schmidt will look for his side to keep the tempo up and the ball in play, even if he conceded it won't be all that simple.

"From what I gather, it was one of the intentions of France in the first half, but intentions have to be backed up by being really solid in certain areas," he said.

"I think one of the problems for France was that they didn't get quite get what they were looking for and that's because Romania can be incredibly competitive and destructive in those areas.

"It's probably given us a really good indication of where they're going to go hard."

As for the four-day turnaround, the coach was not about to accept that his side have an unfair advantage.

"I know Japan dropped off (against Scotland), but I thought the performance of Fiji against Australia. . . they were very strong in the second half, and a number of those players were backing up after a five-day turnaround.

"I know that's an extra day, but it's still a very tight turnaround.

"It's about managing that period in between times because you normally have a pretty big training on a Tuesday after training on a Saturday and your volume in that training tends to equal your volume in a match, often beyond the volume in the metres of distance that you cover, but the collisions do take their toll.

"They can be fully recovered, but can they be fully prepared? That's what Lynn will no doubt be trying to balance up. He's a very experienced man, a coach who has been in a lot of situations where he's had to manage a squad and no doubt he'll make some smart decisions."

In truth, it shouldn't be a problem for Schmidt's side, who have had eight days to reflect on an impressive opening game and build on that performance while resting key bodies.

Next week, their stakes increase and it will begin to feel like serious business, but it is hoped that the work done in the opening weeks will stand to them against France and Italy.

Against Canada, they showed their class by not underestimating the North Americans and, in turning up fully focused, put together a performance of substance.

Romania will offer a different set of problems and Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Nathan White are in for a difficult afternoon, but it's nothing they can't handle.

A solid scrum will negate much of what the Oaks bring, while a committed display from Murphy and Henry at the breakdown will also cancel out their ability to disrupt at the tackle area.

Behind the scrum, Schmidt will look to Leinster pair Eoin Reddan and Madigan for control, while he will hope that the back three can capitalise on the poor kicking that the Romanians showed on Wednesday night.

The French back three made their kick returns count and with Tommy Bowe looking to play his way back into form after a dreadful display at Twickenham and Earls hoping to build on his fine opening display, Ireland will hope to get maximum return.


Simon Zebo's ability to cover full-back seems to have harmed his wing ambitions, but a strong performance won't harm his chances and he'll hope to reprise his double-act with Madigan that proved so successful against Scotland.

Schmidt conceded that he hoped to try Madigan at scrum-half if the circumstances allowed, namely the bonus point secured and the result put beyond doubt on the hour mark.

If we see Madigan at the base of the scrum, then Ireland will be comfortable. If Conor Murray makes an early introduction, then it's not going to plan.

There's little to suggest it will go that way. Ireland will look to go about their business with the same attitude as they did against Canada, bringing similar levels of accuracy and ferocity at the ruck and hoping to build on their game with ball in hand.

They should be comfortable. The spread is 41 points and they should cover it comfortably.

Verdict: Ireland

Irish Independent

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