Sunday 18 November 2018

Should Joe Schmidt pick his strongest side against Canada?

Joe Schmidt speaking with Luke Fitzgerald during yesterday’s training session in Carton House as the Ireland head coach finalises his plans for the opening World Cup game on Saturday
Joe Schmidt speaking with Luke Fitzgerald during yesterday’s training session in Carton House as the Ireland head coach finalises his plans for the opening World Cup game on Saturday

Ruaidhri O'Connor and Cian Tracey

Yes, says Ruaidhri O'Connor. Joe Schmidt is an assiduous reader of all things written about his Ireland team, so when he leafed through his cuttings on Monday morning he would have come across Rory Best's assessment of the 2007 World Cup in these pages.

Along with Paul O'Connell and Eoin Reddan, the hooker is one of three veterans of that tournament still in the squad, while forwards coach Simon Easterby was also involved in the disastrous events in France.

Best's assertion that the players were wrapped in cotton wool for too long rang true and is a cautionary tale going into this opening game against Canada.

Ranked 19th in the world, Ireland's opponents are one of the weakest in this year's competition, but the pool favourites still need to gel on the field and in the heat of battle despite the risk of injury.

Unlike the southern hemisphere giants who have been playing competitive rugby almost non-stop since February, the European sides have had the summer off and, while Schmidt's team played one more warm-up game than most, there are still players who need game-time.

The coach rotated throughout the warm-ups and, apart from Rob Kearney and the injured Cian Healy, they have each featured in two games so far.

Those games are already fading into memory and, by the time Ireland take on France on October 11, they'll be long forgotten.

At that stage, the important thing is that the starting team have clicked and are in the groove as they look to book the more advantageous quarter-final.

Training can only get you so far and combinations will only gel when playing games.

Canada are a limited opponent, but the intensity they bring should cause the Six Nations champions the kind of problems that can only bring them on.

Loudest

There is also the Cardiff factor. Ireland will be back at the Millennium Stadium in four weeks' time and, with the roof set to be closed on both occasions, Saturday allows them the chance to experience the arena at its loudest.

It might sound like a small thing, but listen to Schmidt talk about the "marginal gains" and you can see why he'd be keen for his front-liners to have fresh experience of the noise levels, heat and, perhaps crucially, condensation that accompany a big game in the Welsh capital when the roof is shut.

Most importantly, this is about momentum.

While he is likely to rotate his squad before the week two meeting with Romania, fielding the strongest possible side this Saturday will allow Schmidt's team to set the tone for the games to come.

All week, the mantra from Ireland will be that they are taking things week by week and not looking beyond Canada.

By doing so, they hope to generate momentum to take into the steps up in class in weeks three and four against Italy and France.

They are expected to win big in their first two games and, while doing so won't cause any tremors around the tournament, it would give Ireland a strong base from which to work and allow them grow into the competition as others with more demanding schedules seek to hit the ground running now.

Still, while Ireland may not want to show their hand, there is a need to be at full pitch when it comes to the business end of the pool stages and that's not going to happen if the main players are not involved in the early rounds.

Sure, there's a risk of injury but it's one Ireland have to take if they are to succeed at this World Cup. They can only be kept on the leash so long. The World Cup is here and the best players need to get up to speed right away by playing together as much as possible.

No, says Cian Tracey

While I wouldn’t be inclined to play two completely different XVs in the opening couple of games, there is certainly an argument to be made for Joe Schmidt to select a mix and match of front-line and fringe players against Canada.

The draw has been kind to Ireland in that they meet the so-called two ‘weaker’ nations before the quality of opposition is ramped up against Italy and France.

Schmidt has spent the last two years developing an Irish squad that is arguably heading into a World Cup in the strongest ever position.

Granted, the last time that was said (2007), Ireland crashed and burned but throughout that pool campaign, there was very little rotation in the starting XV.

Ireland have rarely been afforded the luxury of having such strength in depth and they should make the most of that.

Canada won’t roll over but nevertheless, Ireland are vastly superior and can definitely build momentum by getting off to a winning start without starting the same XV that will line out against Italy and France.

All summer, Schmidt has spoken about the importance of peaking at the right time and he will have left his players with no doubt that there is no room for complacency. The feeling surrounding the camp is that they have bought into that.

In the last two World Cups, Ireland have began by playing one of the two lesser teams. In 2007, an unconvincing 32-17 win over Namibia hardly sent out a warning while four years later, they stuttered past USA 22-10.

Unstuck

On both occasions, Ireland lined with an almost full-strength team but eventually came unstuck later in the tournament.

There is a different feel surrounding Schmidt’s team. Going into the World Cup as back-to-back Six Nations champions means that teams will be targeting Ireland but the Kiwi’s players know what it takes to win.

Jack McGrath remains in pole position to start and given that Schmidt only brought two specialised loosehead props and indeed Cian Healy’s desperate need for game time, he should certainly be considered for a start.

The Ireland coach knows what McGrath is capable of and against a Romanian side who will target the set-piece, he should be wrapped in cotton wool.

Tadhg Furlong has been brought as cover for both sides of the scrum, he could also do with minutes at loosehead.

There is a similar argument to be made at scrum-half. Conor Murray has thankfully completed his return to play protocols but had he suffered concussion in a pool game as opposed to a warm-up, Ian Madigan would be needed to cover.

We have yet to see Madigan get a run at scrum-half and with just two 9s in the squad, it is important to give him some game-time there now rather than throwing him in at the deep end if the unthinkable does come to pass.

Canada are likely to be a stubborn unit to break down but Ireland have enough quality within their squad to do it without ultimately having to name their first-choice starting XV.

Perhaps tellingly, Ireland manager Mick Kearney spoke earlier this week about the importance of using the full 31-man squad during the pool stages to avoid “discord”.

Mistakes have been learnt from the past. The players undoubtedly trust Schmidt’s game-plan and he trusts whoever he selects to carry it out effectively. We should all do the same.

Irish Independent

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