Monday, September 16, 2019

Some final thoughts ahead of Ireland's #RWC2019



PRE-AMBLE

When I first put that World Cup countdown clock in the sidebar, there were over 300 days left. Now here we are, less than a week away. But I still reckon kickoff time in the "International Stadium Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, Yokohama City" can't come soon enough for Joe & Rory; it certainly looked that way at Sunday's presser.

As we get through those remaining days, all we can do is update our previews; I was involved in one at the DTwo bar and Nightclub a couple of Fridays ago but loads of things have changed since then, as they will of course between this one and the big kickoff. Still won't stop me harping though!

So for this pre-writeup (writedown?) I'll look at some general areas like matchday squad selection, how we should look at our different opponents, etc so let's see what we can come up with...

BEST 23 AS THE TOURNAMENT KICKS OFF

R Kearney, K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Stockdale, J Sexton, C Murray
C Healy, R Best, T Furlong, J Ryan, I Henderson, P O'Mahony, J vd Flier, J Conan
Bench - S Cronin, D Kilcoyne, A Porter, J Kleyn, T Beirne, L McGrath, J Carbery, J Larmour

Remember, the above is what I think is the best from the squad we've brought - I know there are injury concerns such as Henshaw, who is likely to miss the Scotland match, but since there are no plans to replace him at the time of writing, he has to be in my 23.

And as always with these selections I have to find a balance between my personal opinion and what I reckon Joe will do. There are many who assume Bundee Aki was slated to start at 12 with Robbie at 13 and that is still very much a possibility.

The reason I put Garry in there is that I reckon the only reason he hasn't earned 'undroppable' status just yet is that he hasn't been given the opportunity to earn it; despite many starts, I don't see our attacking plan involving him too much. Unfortunately I also have to make it abundantly clear that my choosing him over Bundee (and indeed Larmour over him at 23) has absolutely nothing to do with where the players were born; hopefully my track record backs up that statement.

But the most important thing about our centre selection is the very fact that we have so many options. Back in 2015 it seemed to be "Henshaw/Payne Or Bust" and when both got injured, we were. Now our 12-13 combination, around which so much of Schmidtball is based, has an abundance of options with Chris Farrell also very much in the mix.

In the pack, after all the hoopla surrounding Kleyn's inclusion I'd be surprised if he didn't play a significant role in the overall plans, but for me Henderson should go ahead of him as a reward for a strong showing in the warmups.

Then there's my leaving out Stander altogether - no doubt that will raise an eyebrow or three and I certainly would be neither surprised nor disappointed if he gets the 8 jersey ahead of Conan; it's just I think Jack offers that teeny bit more all round; blame that on blue goggles if you must.

When it comes to the bench, while Rhys Ruddock is a difficult man to leave out, I can't help but see his role as being a "midweek captain" of sorts with leadership roles against Russia and particularly Samoa. Tadhg Beirne is listed as a lock but having both him and Kleyn in reserve gives us a good mix of flexibility. Assuming all is ok on the injury front at halftime, both can learn enough about what the opposition is doing to be ready to come on and make maximum impact for the final 20-30 minutes in their specialized areas.

Jordan Larmour is another who made my bench based on warmup displays - he seemed to be putting a real effort into showing he wasn't a one-trick pony and had good success in different areas. But that can also be said about Conway and were it to be Aki, Ringrose can move to the wing if required.

Writing about this for too long is making me want to go back and change my mind about that 23 so perhaps I should move on and look at other aspects of our upcoming campaign!

TACTICS

Joe Schmidt has always done things his way since taking the reigns and has been rewarded with much success. This of course has drawbacks as the more you win, the more other teams are likely to focus on the way you play in order to beat you.

Going into RWC2015 we had back to back Six Nations titles in the bag and we all know what happened. This time around, we had a near-perfect 2018 which meant that despite some failings so far this year, we are heading to Japan ranked number 1 in the world.

For me, Joe's progress from 2013 to now sends one clear message; for the most part, the formula is right; but since the opposition have made their own adjustments in the meantime, so must we. And I think it's safe to say that is exactly what he has done as time has gone on.

Take box kicking for example. I know there are many observers who cringe every time we send one up. And it's true, it is something of a gamble because if the distance and hang time aren't just right, it can result in swift punishment back around your own try line.

But we can't focus on the risk while ignoring the potential reward. Before Conor Murray began to have issues with fitness and form, there wasn't a better proponent of the box kick in the world game, and with the right amount of support backing up each and every one, it became quite the weapon.

Now we see others doing it regularly and also getting results, particularly the Erasmus Springboks. I thought it interesting that we shied away from it against both Italy and England yet brought it back against the Welsh - for me that's a perfect way to keep the other gaggles of coaches guessing. No matter how good we may be at it, if the other guys know we're always going to do it, they can find ways to snuff it out.

Then there's lineouts. If anything I think this might be an area where we need to take fewer risks. Sure, a clean catch made by the 6 jumper may be the perfect platform for a power play, but if our opponents have their best poacher there we need to have a backup in place to secure the ball.

But the beauty of relying so much on 'systems' is that they can be tweaked, and that does appear to be what Joe and his coaches have been doing. We'll just have to wait and see if the right balance has been struck in time for his second and final Irish tilt at the big prize.

v SCOTLAND

Going into RWC2015 I thought our fixture list was as perfect as it could be. Start against Canada, then Romania, then Italy and finally the decider against France. The perfect way to ease ourselves into the most important match in the group, right? Nope. Well, now we get to see it from the other side.

When the pool draw was made about a thousand years ago, let's face it; we thought it was a good one, at least with a view to reaching the final eight. But facing the Scots in the opening fixture makes it that little bit trickier as we have no time to settle into the tournament atmosphere.

Of course, that could be a good thing. There is no doubt that Gregor Townsend has a lot of quality in his lineup, with Finn Russell providing the flair and a potent back three which should include some combination of Hogg, Seymour, Maitland, Kinghorn and Graham there to do the finishing.

But for those to take their chances, they must first be given them, and while they also have talent in their forwards, if we really want to consider ourselves capable of reaching the final four, our pack should have enough to both better their Scottish counterparts, and also to deny Russell any kind of time or space to work his magic. Naturally everything I'm saying about our forwards is done with the caveat that we absolutely MUST achieve (at minimum) parity at set pieces.

v JAPAN

Going back once more to RWC2015, all four pools turned out the way they usually do at these tournaments (namely the top team winning all of their matches, the next losing just one, the next two, etc) with one big glaring exception - Japan's stunning upset of the Springboks.

So when we look for reasons why Ireland should fear them in our second match, that will obviously come first. Then we have the fact that they're the host nation. Then we have the fact that they start with an easy opener against Russia followed by an 8-day turnaround while we battle the Scots before having just 6 days to prepare for the Brave Blossoms.

THEN we have their excellent form as they won the 2019 Pacific Nations Cup. Having watched all three of their matches, I was definitely impressed as they hit the ground running each time to build a lead thanks to a versatile pack including skipper Michael Leitch, a solid playmaker in Tamura, and genuine pace out wide with the likes of Matsushima and Fukuoka. But then I saw them play the 2019 Springboks last week.

Rassie's men showed us exactly how the host nation can be beaten. It's certainly won't be easy for Japan to build a lead when their opposition is stronger and better organised to stop their attacks long before they can begin. And I dare anyone to suggest Ireland's D under Andy Farrell isn't equally capable of doing that.

v RUSSIA

Not so easy to look ahead to matches three and four until we know how our tournament is looking after matches one and two, but from everything I have seen from the Russians in the warmup period, we really should be able to get past them, even with our shortest turnaround of the competition leading into it (five days).

v SAMOA

As you can see below, our final pool match takes place the day before Japan and Scotland play theirs. Obviously our main Pool A objective is to ensure that when our rivals do meet each other, it is for second place.

I only watched Samoa's recent clash with the Wallabies a few days after it was played, and I heard a lot of talk that the Pacific Islanders did extremely well despite the final score and Ireland should be concerned. I have to say I saw the 80 minutes a lot differently. It wasn't so much that Samoa were bad and I know we can't take them for granted, it's just that the Wallabies, who had more possibles in their lineup than probables, were better.

So when looking ahead at this match before the tournament even starts, I have to believe that we can approach it with one eye on an all-important quarterfinal the following week. But that is the extent to which I'll tempt the rugby gods in this piece - of course a lot can happen between now and October 12!!!!

OVERALL FIXTURE LIST

Fri Sep 20 JPN v RUS
Sun Sep 22 IRE v SCO
Tue Sep 24 RUS v SAM
Sat Sep 28 JPN v IRE
Mon Sep 30 SCO v SAM
Thu Oct 3 IRE v RUS
Sat Oct 5 JPN v SCO
Wed Oct 9 SCO v RUS
Sat Oct 12 IRE v SAM
Sun Oct 13 JPN v SCO

The conspiracy-seeking blogger in me reckons it's no coincidence that the host Japanese have their first match against one of the lowest ranked nations, followed by a lengthy 8-day turnaround. Assuming no upset, that's a lot of news cycles with them having one big win and no defeats on the Pool A table.

If my above theory is right, then it's pretty clear that the competition is not based in Samoa! They must play their 4 matches in just 19 days, while the Russians don't fare much better with 20. Something really needs to be done to fix this before #RWC2023 so hopefully Messrs Beaumont & Pichot will flex their supposedly-progressive muscles before then.

All of that said, my crystal ball can't really see anything other this pool's table falling into the 4 wins, 3 wins, 2 wins, etc pattern I spoke of earlier. While you can make a case for Scotland, Japan and Samoa all being capable of beating teams ranked above them, I wouldn't put too much money on any of them doing actually doing so.

POST-AMBLE

I'm planning to look more closely at pools B,C and D in this week's podcast, but when it comes to Ireland's hopes going into the competition, it won't hurt to cast an eye at Pool B where we will find our quarterfinal opponents should we make it.

Over the 'warmup' phase we all saw how well prepared the Springboks seem to be. And while the All Blacks had a blip or two, we also saw how well they can recover. There can be no doubt that a repeat of RWC2011, when the final was a rematch from the pool stages, is very much on the cards.

So with Ireland's path to the final four virtually guaranteed to lead through a powerhouse out of Pool B, what can we make of our chances?

Everything I have ever written on these pages has been as a fan. I have played the game, though never above 'seconds' standard and even that was a long time ago. So my opinions are generally based on a combination of observation and passion rather than experience.

But when I say the sentence : "I believe that Ireland can not only get past the quarterfinal, we can actually win the whole thing" is that based purely on passion? Hell, no.

The boys in green certainly won't get far if they don't believe in themselves, and I reckon Joe & co have done a really good job helping them do that. But we as fans also have a job, namely to get behind them 100% and beyond.

And for this World Cup, having faith in them is anything but blind. Show me passages of play that you say prove we have no chance and I'll show you three that do. But it's not just about YouTube clips.

It's about an overall culture of winning that has been growing in Irish rugby over the years, and not just since Joe took over; since the game went pro. It's about the conveyor belt of talent that keeps winding its way towards the test setup, and I got another glimpse of it watching Leinster A last weekend. It's about the respect we are shown by other leading nations; even the English wouldn't consider us an easy mark in Japan despite how things have gone this year at Twickenham.

So as the clock ticks down in the build up to Friday's opening ceremony, why don't we make it less about what obstacles can trip us up and more about what Joe, Rory and the lads can actually achieve over there.

COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN! JLP


Later this week on Harpin On Rugby...

Tuesday - Guest posts
Wednesday - Podcast (Including Pool B,C,D previews)
Friday - Ireland v Scotland preview (video)
Sunday - Online comments after Ireland v Scotland
Monday - Ireland v Scotland writeup

Every morning 8:30am - Front 5 quotes & links

Plus regular content here on the site, TwitterFacebook & Instagram.    

STAY TUNED!!!

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Front Five - 16.09.19

Start your day with five eye-catching egg-chasing quotes & links from around the ruggersphere.

No writeup this week so I might as well
throw my World Cup preview in with
all the others out there! 


If he picks Aki and Ringrose or Farrell on Friday it will be the 24th time in 30 Test matches that he's been unable to name the same midfield back-to-back.


Ruaidhri O'Connor - Irish Independent

"...he, and the medical and strength and conditioning staff have done an incredible job to get him to this point"


RugbyPass

Ritchie was forced to delay his departure to Japan after suffering a broken cheekbone against Georgia


Andy Newport - The Scotsman

"If your shoulder is ahead of your hands, then the law doesn't look after you very well."


SkySports.com

Tomorrow marks the two-year anniversary since a dispiriting 57-0 loss to the All Blacks


Sean Farrell - The42.ie

Feel free to share any interesting links you spot yourself about t’internet by email, Twitter, Facebook, blog comment or carrier pigeon – whatever works for you. JLP

Note - views expressed in "Front Five" links do not necessarily reflect those of HarpinOnRugby

Will there be life after the quarter-finals for Ireland at the World Cup?

Ireland squad huddle at RWC training in Japan
©INPHO Dan Sheridan
Anyone suffering from pre-Rugby World Cup anxiety that is fortunate enough to have a bit of time on their hands can attempt to try and calm their nerves by popping over to the official 2019 Rugby World Cup site to play what they have called their ‘Tournament Bracket’. Basically, you select the winners of the various pools and then follow the pattern to the quarters, semis and of course, eventually the final.

If you’re Irish, however, this could indeed have the opposite effect and only serve to stir up more apprehension.

The problems don’t really lie in Pool A for Ireland with a relatively straightforward task at hand to get to the quarter-finals. The only real sides that could cause the Irish any headaches are Scotland and Japan, the latter not purely because they are at home but also because they have come on leaps and bounds over the last few years. It may also be worth mentioning that once an underdog gets the taste of an upset, especially in these huge world tournaments, they often come back believing they can do it again, which is half the battle won.

A quick glance back to the 2015 World Cup should serve as ample warning for the Irish.

It was the Springboks that opened the door for Japan back in 2015 when the upset of the tournament took place down on the seaside in Brighton. Ever since then the Brave Blossoms have trawled the waters of world rugby ready to pounce should they smell blood, make no mistake, Ireland will have to be wary but not afraid. Japan’s sole purpose will be to make it out of the group which will undoubtedly constitute a successful campaign. If we’re being realistic, Scotland are probably more in danger of being overrun by the charged-up hosts with Ireland extremely likely to finish on top of Pool A.

So far so good, so why all the dire warnings you say?

Lying in wait for Ireland will be New Zealand or South Africa which could very well spell the end of Irish hopes at the 2019 World Cup. Both of these two nations have been priced as the two favourites in the Rugby World Cup 2019 odds and on paper, there doesn’t seem to be a harder fixture for any team than playing these southern hemisphere juggernauts. The question is: which of these two old foes would offer the easier route to the semi-final?

Going on momentum and momentum alone, you would have to say New Zeland would be the easier game at this moment in time. There will be a few reading this who would have by now have already spat their Guinness out and are currently on the end of a few suspicious looks at their local pub after reading that, but it is true.

The All Blacks over the last 12 months have begun to show their frailties and were even unable to win the Rugby Championship this year instead, losing out to the impressive Springboks. Rassie Erasmus' side are without a doubt a team on the up and possibly the best side at this year’s World Cup.
That said, the All Blacks will still pose an almighty problem for Ireland but not an insurmountable one. Put it this way, you would rather play New Zealand now more than any time over the last eight years.

No team in this year’s tournament will find winning the World Cup easy and you’ve probably heard someone say already that this will be the ‘closest World Cup in years’. In Ireland’s case, it just gets a lot harder a lot sooner.

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