Saturday 24 March 2018

Joe Schmidt raises stakes as Twickenham showdown gives chance to launch World Cup bid

Coach playing game of 'mix and match' against England in bid to get his front-liners up to speed

3 August 2015; Cian Healy, Ireland, during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
3 August 2015; Cian Healy, Ireland, during squad training. Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The next time Ireland board a plane to make the short hop to the UK, it will be the real deal in 12 days' time when they fly to Cardiff for their World Cup opener against Canada.

The big show is within touching distance, but there is just one more hurdle to clear.

Joe Schmidt has being trying all week to put the phrase 'warm-up' out of the equation. His players are plenty prepared at this stage, the important thing now is to perform.

Rob Kearney aside, he has gone full tilt for this clash with England in an attempt to have his core of players battle-hardened and match-ready for the challenges to come.

Cian Healy is also kept on ice, but this team has a familiar feel to it and the coach wants his combinations to click into gear.

The end result will fade to irrelevance soon, but victory at Twickenham is never to be sniffed at. Schmidt knows that his side can use tomorrow's game as a launchpad.

Much has been said about his side's preparation, but now they need to ramp up to match-readiness.


The World Cup schedule is kind in that they have clashes with Canada, Romania and a struggling Italy side before taking on France on October 11 and managing that peak has been front and centre of his plans.

So far, his extended squad have beaten Wales and Scotland before Warren Gatland's side gained revenge last weekend. Each outing has increased battle-hardness, but now it is almost time for full throttle.

"What we did try to do was gauge a little bit who's a bit more fatigued than others," Schmidt said of his selection and ensuring his side are in peak condition later this month.

"It's been a big block of nine weeks of work and it's probably just trying to balance a little bit of game time, a little bit of recovery, so that we get, hopefully, guys in their very best condition in two weeks' time when the whole thing kicks off.

"It's very challenging because it's not something I've done before. The one probable advantage is that I've got to know the players quite well.

"Some players will go out and play really well fresh, and other players need a couple of games under their belt and you have to keep them ticking over. It's just about getting that balance right, really, and hoping that in between times you get a few combinations together that helps build some cohesion.

"That's probably across the board what we've tried to do.

"We've also tried to mix up a few combinations because with so many congested big games together, we may be forced to make some changes in our combinations and therefore we just want to feel that we're able to mix and match.

"Keith Earls, after getting that knock last week, while he's gone through the return-to-play protocols, we thought it was prudent to leave him out and he has freshened up nicely.

"Luke Fitzgerald, as well, he trained fully during the week. We just felt it was prudent to leave him out.

"And then we put the other guys together and decided, right, who needs a bit of game time and who doesn't? Who didn't play last week and try to mix and match.

"Who plays really well fresh and do we keep him fresh for the tournament? It's just getting that mix is part of the challenge. It's imperfect because you're not quite sure, so it's a best-guess scenario."

By selecting so many perceived front-liners, there is much to mull over at Twickenham tomorrow.

How will Devin Toner and Peter O'Mahony respond to Iain Henderson throwing down the gauntlet last weekend? Can Ireland expand their attacking game against what Schmidt described as a "very, very good" England defence?

This will be a good gauge of Ireland's physicality as they go toe-to-toe with Stuart Lancaster's men who must peak much sooner than their guests given their perilous place in the tournament's pool of death, while the visitors will want to keep a lid on discipline after last week's performance.

"I don't think you ever go to Twickenham for a warm-up game," Schmidt said.

"It's very much a hot-bed from the start. I've no doubt that they're looking to rebound as we will be.


"We felt probably a little bit unlucky last week and lot of what we did put us in good field position to probably do a little bit better than what we did.

"We've just got to make sure that we finish a few things this week. But there's no tougher team to break down defensively than the English.

"They are very, very good defensively. They put a lot of pressure on you when you have the ball. They slow the ruck well and once a ruck is slowed, they get so many numbers on their feet that they're kinda charging at you.

"You might have the ball, but they have the momentum. It does make it a pretty tough day, so we're going to have to be really accurate around the breakdown and they have a number of threats around the breakdown as well.

"When they do play with speed, that's the threat that's exacerbated by the individuals they have and the speed and footwork they have. You only have to look at Anthony Watson, the try he scored (against France) from about 10 metres out where his ability to step and accelerate was incredible."

Individually, the decision not to play Rob Kearney hands Simon Zebo the No 15 shirt, but conversely allows Dave Kearney another opportunity to impress on the left wing.

Although he praised Zebo's ability to cover full-back, he did point out a defensive glitch against Scotland and the Munster flyer needs to be on his game. The coach downplayed a bruised knee suffered by the elder Kearney brother in training, but no one wants any sort of injury this close to kick-off.

Perhaps that's why Healy remains in cotton wool as Tadhg Furlong gets a first chance to try out his loosehead skills in front of more than 80,000 people. No pressure.

Most of those starting can be confident of being back on the biggest stage later this month. The important thing is ensuring they're in peak condition when they do so.

Irish Independent

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