Monday 14 October 2019

Solid scrum the perfect platform for felling the Oaks

Peter O’Mahony, Mike Ross, Paul O’Connell, Cian Healy and Rob Kearney hitch a lift to yesterday’s training
Peter O’Mahony, Mike Ross, Paul O’Connell, Cian Healy and Rob Kearney hitch a lift to yesterday’s training
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It wasn't for Scotland to take pity on Japan for their four-day turnaround, it was their job to exploit it, and the same goes for Ireland against Romania on Sunday.

Sympathy for the Oaks was in short supply at St George's Park this week and to be fair to Ireland's players, the pool schedule is not their concern. Seeding and the demands of the broadcasters dictate when they play - and when they play, their job is to win.

That has been the sole focus during the intensive week in the English midlands as Joe Schmidt worked his players hard at the FA's shiny centre.

They impressed at times against Canada, but there was much to improve on and the inevitable changes to the team mean new combinations and a certain amount of bedding in.

Schmidt spoke after the opening game of tweaking his game-plan to suit the next opponent, and he will work on a fresh template to break down a physically strong side with a limited backline. So, how might he go about felling the Oaks.

Win the scrum, then the match

Ireland's scrum has been excellent all pre-season and was rock solid last weekend, but this represents a very different test. Romania may not go with their France-based first-choice props Mihaita Lazar and Paulica Ion, who played last night, but their back-ups are also operating with French clubs so will be of a good standard.

The scrum is a source of pride for the Romanians, always has been. They struggle to produce backs of decent quality and have had to go abroad to improve behind the scrum, but up front they have little issue producing big men who love nothing more than getting up close and personal.

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Losing their first-choice second-rows before the tournament won't help their preparations and, while they are famous for their scrum, Ireland's is growing in stature and reputation all the time.

"We're trying to hone it into a weapon now," Jack McGrath said this week.

"We've been working on it for two and a half years and it's great to have the experience of (Rory) Besty and (Mike) Rossy to help me along and even Cian (Healy) coming back in.

"So, I suppose it is an area that we're confident is going well but one afternoon being shoved back, and it can all go down the toilet. It's somewhere you really have to be switched on every time you go out."

The intent will be that this won't be that day and, if they can manage to diffuse the eastern Europeans' weapon of choice, then they will have gone some way towards winning the game.

Maul away

The Romanians are big boys, but their aptitude for defending the maul can be questionable and you can be sure that the Irish pack will look to test them out in this department.

Top teams find Ireland's attacking maul hard to stop, so the likes of Canada and Romania can really struggle.

While Canada tried to disengage and sack at times, Romania appear to prefer to push with limited success. Often they end up collapsing, while when they stay on their feet their body positions are high and they are vulnerable to going backwards.

Counter-attack at will

With Jordi Murphy and Chris Henry likely to be involved, Ireland are likely to have a strong ground game and they'll target Romania's one-out runners, who can often wander into contact slowly.

If they do manage to force turnovers, Schmidt will want to see an improvement in how his charges take their chances when they present themselves.

On kicks, the Romanian chasing line doesn't always have the greatest discipline and the back three should be able to find holes, while the defensive pressure Ireland exert should force loose balls that they can exploit too.

Against Italy and France, capitalising on opposition errors on the counter attack will be crucial and it would be advisable to start now.

Defend your fringes

When Lynn Howells took over Romania, he found that they were playing an expansive game that didn't suit them and quickly set about scaling back their ambition.

"The problem they had was they thought they were New Zealand," he said this week.

"They had to keep it simple and do those simple things very well. And it is also a case of putting together a game-plan that suits Romania.

"It's no good putting together a game-plan that is a 15-man game. The biggest problem when playing France or Ireland will be the pace of the game. They won't have experienced anything like that."

So, Romania prefer to hunt in pods and go through phases of close carries. It's nothing that should keep Les Kiss awake at night, as long as his players are ready to front up and defend the close-in channels.

Exploit your advantage

Ireland are the better team and have had four days more rest than their opponents; they should play with relentless pace and keep the ball in play as much as possible to make that count.

Against Canada, they varied their game to such an extent that the Canucks looked bewildered, with Schmidt introducing some familiar old plays to mix things up. After that game, the coach hailed his team's "three-dimensional" shape and was pleased with the depth of his attack. The Romanians will have been beaten up by the French forwards last night, but their challenge this time is more cerebral as they try and keep pace with the changes in Schmidt's game-plan and the complexities of his side's attack.

"We want to take another step forward. If we can do that, that will be good," skills coach Richie Murphy said yesterday. "Things like making sure our set-piece is really strong, making sure that our pass quality is good and that we're good around the breakdown area is the key thing.

"We have to set out own standards and see where that gets us to. We've done a lot of analysis on them and they're very strong in the front five. They could cause us problems."

If they do that, win number two shouldn't be long in materialising.

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