Monday 23 April 2018

Joe Schmidt ponders changes ahead of Romania clash

Coach likely to rotate his squad for clash with Romania, but will be keen to maintain momentum generated against Canada

Robbie Henshaw, at Ireland’s team base in St George’s Park, Burton-upon-Trent yesterday, is set to play on Sunday, presuming he makes it through the week unscathed
Robbie Henshaw, at Ireland’s team base in St George’s Park, Burton-upon-Trent yesterday, is set to play on Sunday, presuming he makes it through the week unscathed
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ireland are content to exist on the margins of this World Cup for the time being and this week have removed themselves from the maelstrom.

Their team base at St George's Park is decorated with pictures of the great names of English football. Paul O'Connell sleeps beneath an image of Peter Shilton, Sean Cronin has David Beckham beaming down on him.

Burton on Trent, the nearest town, is a 20-minute drive away, and it's not really rugby country.

That's where the players received their commemorative caps last night at their official welcome ceremony, but apart from the branding around training and the handful of volunteers around the hotel, there is little to indicate there's a World Cup going on.

"It gives us a chance to isolate ourselves a little bit and put in another solid week of work," assistant coach Les Kiss explained of the strategy.

"We plan to be at the tournament longer, so it's another week building forward in terms of what we hope to achieve. It's a chance to get away and hunker down so we can launch forward. Good facilities though."

Each of the pitches at St George's Park is a replica in size of Wembley Stadium where Ireland take on Romania on Sunday, another little bit of detail into the mix.

Different

The eastern Europeans, meanwhile, are preparing in very different circumstances, with the small matter of a meeting with France at the Olympic Stadium to get over tomorrow before they can think about Ireland.

Their Welsh coach Lynn Howells has selected Romania's most experienced team ever for their opener, but the reality is stark for the minnows who have never beaten a tier-one country in the professional era and haven't played any since the last World Cup.

While Canada were at least fresh and almost at full strength on Saturday, this week's opponents will be dipping into their squad four days after playing the biggest team in the tournament. The calibre of opponent will matter less to Schmidt than the quality of performance his side delivers.

IRELAND TEAM FIXTURES 2018

Date / Time Teams

This is the last of the handy numbers. Italy are no great shakes but they will test Ireland in ways they haven't been so far and then comes the ugly French juggernaut, all brute force and hard edges.

The idea of all 31 players getting a run is a hope rather than an expectation for the coaching staff who appreciate the need to keep the squad happy, but want to build combinations.

There will certainly be changes this week, but whether they come on a wholesale basis remains to be seen.

It is important to rest the players who need it, because from next week on the room to rotate narrows.

"It's a bit of a catch 22," Schmidt said of the need to keep things fresh. "We want to build cohesion, we want to get continuity, we want to keep guys in a match rhythm as well.

"Guys are used to, in big competitions, going week to week. At the same time, if we do get to a fourth or a fifth week and are in the mix, we want guys to be both fresh and have a rhythm.

"Ideally, you would (like to have all 31 involved). You've selected them because you trust that they've got the ability to contribute.

"We'd like to see everyone contribute, but at the same time it is trying to combine that continuity and that cohesion that was demonstrated at times (against Canada) and trying to maintain that into next week and, particularly, the week after and the week after that."

Take the centre. Robbie Henshaw was down to play in Cardiff last weekend until he suffered his hamstring strain, meaning Luke Fitzgerald was likely to play at No 13 this weekend.

Now, Fitzgerald has featured at No 12 and Henshaw is set to play on Sunday, presuming he makes it through training unscathed.

Jared Payne has played in the last three Tests and could do with a rest, but his partnership with Henshaw - while good - still needs fine-tuning and there must be a temptation to put them in from the start to build understanding.

Up front, the tight five are likely to rotate but there is a nagging doubt because that's where Romania are strongest. Italy and France aren't too bad there either.

So, do you risk Tadhg Furlong coming on if Nathan White is struggling or do you put the experienced man there for insurance.

There is a decision to be made on Cian Healy too, the loosehead needs minutes but also requires managing. At the same time, they must be careful not to over-extend Jack McGrath.

In the back-row, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip could be given a rest and it remains to be seen if whisking Johnny Sexton off after 55 minutes means he'll go again after delivering such a brilliant performance last weekend.

If he goes again, where does that leave Paddy Jackson?

Then there's the back three. Tommy Bowe surely deserves a second chance at some stage, while Simon Zebo barely got a look-in against Canada. Rob Kearney needs minutes too after missing the last warm-up against England.

As well as analysing their own promising opening and previewing the Romanians, Kiss and the rest of the coaches have been watching the other games at this World Cup closely so far for trends.

"The refs have probably delivered on what they said they would; offside and the neck-high tackles, a lot of variation of who's doing what in each one, but they're definitely going to nail down on foul play," he said.

"We can see those things creeping into the decisions that they're looking at, because they want to please what they've been told to do, and we've just got to adapt to it.

"Watching the other games we're probably seeing that teams haven't become conservative. I still think they want to back their game. All of them.

"Each game has got something about it that's quite exciting, and each one is trying to bring their strengths, but I think they're all still trying to play a bit of rugby, which is nice."

Irish Independent

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