Tuesday 26 March 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Schmidt's six-day World Cup dry run'

Analysis

Ireland boss Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When talk of the World Cup surfaces at this remove it usually centres around Ireland's potential quarter-final against South Africa or New Zealand.

Eagle-eyed supporters will have noted yesterday's news that Lood de Jager is out for the year and considered the consequences for Rassie Erasmus's men in October.

The Springboks may be the most likely opponent for that Tokyo date, but for Joe Schmidt and the Ireland management the focus will be on getting there first.

And to do that, they must negotiate a tricky, front-loaded start that is the opposite of their schedule in 2015.

Back then, the pool built steadily to that climactic Cardiff afternoon when Schmidt's side got the better of France and were left counting the bodies.

This autumn, they begin on Sunday, September 22 in Yokohama against Scotland before taking on Japan in Shizuoka on Saturday, 28.

Ireland's Joey Carbery. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ireland's Joey Carbery. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Should they successfully negotiate those games they will then have 21 days with two matches against Russia and Samoa to get ready for a quarter-final.

So there is a real need to hit the ground running which is something Schmidt admits his side have struggled to do in tournament windows in the past.

He'll have four pre-tournament matches to get the team primed but managing the resources through two key games in six days is another challenge. The next 11 days is being viewed as a dry run.

"We've got a six day turnaround to Wales," Schmidt said ahead of this Sunday's clash with France.

"We start the World Cup with Scotland and then a six-day turnaround to Japan so I think, for us, that's a perfect opportunity to get as close as we possible can in a competition to where we'll need to be, come Rugby World Cup."

So what does that look like for an Irish team looking to find form after a tricky couple of weeks?

Having spread his net wide by using 34 players in the tournament to date, the coach is likely to focus his selection in the coming weeks.

Judging by the bodies in attendance at last Friday's training session, he will have close to his strongest panel available.

Devin Toner is out, Joey Carbery is unlikely to be fit and Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy are in a race to get back in but the selection picture looks far healthier than it has done since those heady days before the England game.

It has been apparent that, while they've given everything towards winning the Six Nations, it is not the primary goal of 2019.

Schmidt does not want to lose World Cup momentum this spring, but he has admitted that World Cup success would be a suitable way of curing any disappointment felt in the annual Championship.

The focus is on a strong finish and Schmidt will have devised a selection strategy that will make the most of the resources he has available.

Injury will undoubtedly intervene given the size and power contained within the French ranks coming to Dublin this Sunday, but dealing with and reacting to that is part of the dress rehearsal element.

Having repaired to Belfast last week for a three-day training camp and a little light relief, the squad assembled at their Kildare base last night to begin preparations for Sunday's game.

Friday's session against the Grand Slam chasing U-20s was a relentless 68 minute affair and they'll keep their feet to the floor this week.

Having rested Cian Healy, Rory Best and James Ryan for the trip to Rome, he will be expected to return to the team this weekend.

Managing the load of the forwards and midfielders will be the key to success.

He may have been tempted to start Carbery (pictured) in one of these games, but his hamstring issue looks set to put paid to that plan.

For all that Jack Carty has earned his place in the squad and led Friday's training session, it seems highly unlikely that he'll start games of this magnitude unless there's an injury.

So Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will remain in situ as the parts move around them.

Healy, Best and Tadhg Furlong are locked in starters but Dave Kilcoyne could come in at loosehead to share the load if Schmidt wants a fresh body for game two of the series.

Behind them, he is likely to pick Ryan and Iain Henderson for the first game with Tadhg Beirne on the bench and there is scope to bring the in-form Munster man in if the starters show fatigue in the aftermath of the game.

Likewise, there are options in the back-row where CJ Stander is fit again and vying with Jack Conan for the No 8 shirt. Josh van der Flier is the favourite to wear the No 7 jersey, with Peter O'Mahony the constant presence at No 6. If he shows signs of fatigue, Beirne can come off the bench and cover the blindside.

Much depends on Leavy's fitness. He hasn't played since December but remains firmly in the coach's plans.

Seán O'Brien remains a live option but his absence from the Belfast camp was ominous for his chances.

Schmidt may look at reverting to the round one back-row of O'Mahony, van der Flier and Stander and then freshen things up with Leavy, O'Brien, Conan or Jordi Murphy in Cardiff.

Behind the scrum, it appears likely that Garry Ringrose will come into the starting team at No 13, while Robbie Henshaw will also come into the equation if he is fit enough to train today. Whether it's at inside centre or full-back remains to be seen.

With training time limited between the two games, it is likely Schmidt banked some analysis of Wales last week to be ready to hit the ground running on this day week.

On the outside, this week is all about finding form. Within the camp, there will be a keen focus on doing it while managing the work-load that comes with two massive Tests in six days.

Doing that successfully could have positive ramifications at the business end of the year.

Irish Independent

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