Paul O'Connell's long goodbye begins: Five talking points ahead of Ireland’s clash with Wales
With Joe Schmidt required to name his 31-man World Cup squad on Monday, opportunity knocks for a significant number of the Irish players who will take the field for tomorrow’s penultimate warm up game with Wales at the Aviva Stadium.
Although Schmidt has handed seasonal bows to the spine of the side that, injury notwithstanding, is likely to be Ireland’s first choice in England and Wales, he has left the door open to for those on the fringes to state their case against a Welsh outfit at almost full-compliment.
Here we’ve selected five major talking points:
Can Nathan White scrummage on the international stage?
The need to rest Mike Ross, in tandem with Marty Moore’s foot injury, has afforded the Connacht tight-head his first start at test level, having come off the bench against Scotland a fortnight ago for his international debut. During his second half cameo, the naturalised Kiwi demonstrated deft handling skills and mobility in the loose.
However, there is no adequate evidence regarding his prowess in the scum at international level. Of course, the primary function of a tight-head is to lock down a scrummage and provide a stable platform on which to build an offensive output.
So, White must demonstrate his ability to do so against the seasoned Gethin Jenkins tomorrow and, if permitted, disrupt the Welsh on their own put-in.
If the Irish scrum creaks or fails to get parity, Schmidt will have to consider whether or not White is worth taking to the World Cup as his second choice number three, even if Moore is not yet at 100pc. In the final two group games Ireland must navigate France and Italy, two nations with considerable heft in this area, and against whom White has no previous experience, and the 34-year-old must show he is capable of challenging sides of this quality if called upon.
Tahdg Furlong, named on the bench, has an outside shot at bypassing both Moore and White if he performs admirably.
Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls must demonstrate their versatility
It’s no secret that Joe Schmidt values utility and tactical adherence in his players, possibly above all else. Luke Fitzgerald, who will line out at outside centre, will know this as well as anyone, considering his five-year working relationship with the Kiwi. Earls, selected on the left-wing, has been blighted by injury since Schmidt assumed control of the national side, but he’s likely now up to speed on exactly what’s expected of him.
Earls looked exceedingly sharp playing at 13 in Cardiff earlier this month, and capped off a fine performance with a try. His defence, often questioned when he’s deployed in midfield, looked relatively solid, though his Welsh counterparts- 19-year-old Tyler Morgan and Scott Williams- were markedly obliging.
Conversely, and not alone, Luke Fitzgerald was clearly undercooked during Ireland’s victory over Scotland. A series of unforced handling errors and mistimed runs could not be concealed by his wonderfully-taken match winning try.
Fitzgerald was used sporadically in midfield by Matt O’Connor for Leinster last season, but tomorrow represents a wholly different challenge. Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams are a formidable pairing and Fitzgerald could be in for a long day defending the outside channel.
A strong showing, combined with Schmidt’s knowledge of what he’s truly capable of as winger, could see the Blackrock man selected as back-up for Jared Payne-come-potential back three starter. Earls is tasked with subduing Alex Cuthbert, and showcasing how effective his kick-chase game is. If he ticks those boxes, it would be tough to bet against him making the grade.
The Kearney brothers return, but in what sort of form?
It’s probably fair to say that Rob Kearney has been far from his best over the last 12 months. The two-time Lion appears to have reached a stasis of sorts and, arguably, remained Schmidt’s first choice full-back based on previous achievements.
Still as solid as ever under a high ball, Kearney the elder has become increasingly predictable with ball in hand of late, though his coach might not necessarily consider that a bad thing.
Perhaps this is why, along with his sibling, he chose to take almost no down time in the wake of Leinster’s disappointing campaign, and undergo an extensive pre-season regime. Simon Zebo’s showing against Scotland proved that Ireland would not be lost if a change at full-back was either forced or decided upon, so the onus is on the three-time Heineken Cup winner to hit the ground running tomorrow.
All reports emanating from Carton House over the past month suggest that Dave Kearney has been sharp as a tack during training, which is massively prioritised by Schmidt. A shoulder injury suffered in January prevented him from partaking in Ireland’s Six Nations retention this year, but he made a tentative return to action from his province before the end of season and has been hard at it in the interim.
He’s packed additional muscle onto his frame and appears more than ready for his showdown with George North. Competition for places in the back three is fierce so Kearney junior will be hoping he can carry his form on the training paddock to the Aviva.
Warm up or not, don’t expect a tame affair
Of the seven tests Ireland have contested this year, they have claimed victories in six, with March’s loss to Warren Gatland’s side - which ultimately prevented a Grand Slam - the only stain on their record for 2015. It’s difficult to imagine that this doesn’t still grate with the returning Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Paul O’Connell.
When Ireland and Wales come together the intensity tends to ratchet up quickly, mainly through the musings of antagonist-in-chief Warren Gatland, who will be looking for even the slightest psychological edge in case the sides cross paths –conceivably at the semi-final stage- when the stakes are high over the next eight weeks.
Paul O’Connell’s long goodbye begins
The Toulon-bound lock will play his last game for Ireland on Irish soil tomorrow, as his international career enters its final phase. One of the country’s greatest ever players and, for that matter, captains, O’Connell deserves every plaudit that comes his way.
It’s such a shame that the IRFU’s extortionate ticket prices means that so few people have been compelled to give the Munster man a send-off befitting of his contribution to Irish rugby. Like Brian O’Driscoll before him, the captain will only consider sentiment when all is said and done, chiefly scalping the Welsh, and then on to his fourth and final World Cup.