Thursday, September 04, 2014

HoR pre-season thoughts - Part 3

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Pre-season training normally involves over indulging on fitness regimes to prepare your squad for the long slog ahead.

Here at HarpinOnRugby, we're no different and we've been undergoing a rigorous programme, carefully crafted by the finest strength and conditioning coaches, to prepare to share our thoughts  with you on the 2014/15 campaign.

And to round things off, this week we are powering our way through a gruelling four, yes, FOUR consecutive days of previews to let you know how we see things shaping up for Leinster & Ireland for the months ahead.  Spare your pity, folks, it's all for the love of the game.

On Tuesday we looked at the various changes around the game as the season kicks off.  Then yesterday we featured the various opposition Leinster are set to face in the months ahead.

Tomorrow, we look at Leinster specifically as they prepare to launch their bid for more silverware with a very tricky visit to Scotstoun.  

But for today, it is to test rugby we turn.  

PART THREE - THE HOLY GRAIL

Ireland are the reigning Six Nations Champions.

Allow me to type that again.  Ireland are the reigning Six Nations Champions.

Because we have been hard-wired over the years to believe that only winning all five matches really counts, I feel it's important to remind ourselves of that fact because you'd almost think some people would prefer to remember last season for that heart-breaking loss to the All Blacks than what happened four months later in Paris.

Joe Schmidt took over as coach after a trophy-filled tenure at the RDS, and in his first season delivered one for the entire union.  It goes without saying that many would have done it with different personnel, but put your alternative matchday 23s to Joe himself and all he has to do is show you the silverware.  Game over.

Does that automatically mean we're going to do it again?  Of course it doesn't.  But one thing we can be sure of is that we will be considered one of the teams to beat.

Still though...whatever happens next spring, it cannot take from the overall goal of the coaching staff...a final four spot at RWC2015 has to be our Holy Grail.  It was for Declan, it was for Eddie - let's face it...it has been since 1987.

Don't get me wrong...of COURSE I want to win it! But as BOD said himself on his BT Sport debut - for us never to have gotten past the final eight is a shame given  the talent we have enjoyed on these shores.

And so when we look to the months ahead we must do so with that in mind and we have put the topic into three headings...

SCHEDULE

November - South Africa, Georgia, Australia (all home)
February - Italy (a) France (h)
March - England (h) Scotland (a) Wales (a)
August - Wales (h) Wales (a) - these warm-ups are to be confirmed
September - Canada (Millennium Stadium) Romania (Wembley)
October - Italy (Olympic Stadium) France (Millennium Stadium)

I'd be surprised if there wasn't another warm-up and maybe a Wolfhounds contest added to the schedule at some stage, but still that's a relatively small amount of matches left for Schmidt & co to prepare; though the RWC schedule has been kind to an extent as we play our "minnows" in our first two matches and thus can use them as warm-ups of sorts.

As far as the Six Nations goes, although most would say we have the "easier" schedule than we did last season given we avoid both Twickers and Paris, I find one tiny flaw in that theory.  The schedule only becomes "easier" provided your goal is the Grand Slam.  Should we fail, for example, against one from England or France, to retain our title we'd be relying on points difference, something that would be more difficult as this time we are away to Scotland, Italy and Wales.

But overall, in purely World Cup terms, it is a schedule I would have to consider to be a favourable one.  The Springboks and Wallabies will give us a good sense of where we are before Christmas, the Six Nations will give us extra preparedness as two of them are in our pool, and finally the Welsh can help us iron out a few last-minute kinks before we head across the Irish Sea.

We all know that the match with France on October 11 2015 is key.  Lose it, and the best we can hope for is a quarterfinal against the All Blacks.  But win, and the Wellington memories could help us through a quarterfinal and grasp the Holy Grail once and for all.

PLAYERS & COACHES

R Kearney, T Bowe, Haven't Decided Yet, G D'Arcy, S Zebo, J Sexton, C Murray.
C Healy, R Best, M Ross, P O'Connell, D Toner, P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip

We could debate our ideal test team from now to kingdom come.  We all have our opinions, sometimes they come from common sense, other times they come through provincially-coloured specs.  And naturally those opinions will change with each passing minute of each match in the new campaign.

But one thing we don't have is much time to come up with a solution to our number 13 vacancy.  It has been debated exhaustively for months upon months, but now we must confront this elephant in our room once an for all.

I presume we have two possible strategies...anoint one player now as our first choice 13 and make the jersey his to lose, or instead have a "Chasing Eggs Factor" of sorts giving a few players their shot in November and possibly against Italy in February.  

Personally I'd prefer the anointing option.  Given the pivotal role BOD brought to the outside centre position especially on defence, the establishment of a rapport between our 12 and 13 will be crucial to our progress.  

But as for who the Anointed One may be, I can't say I have a clue just yet.  D'Arcy, Payne & Henshaw must all be in the frame at the moment among others trying to get fit and we will have to see how they get on with their provinces.  This is definitely a shout that doesn't have to be made until late October.

Also we must make sure that the loss of John Plumtree has no effect on our pack.  Simon Easterby not only knows the Irish set-up but also has spent time in the Welsh one so will have much to add and with Greg Feek on the scrums, plus the professionalism offered by senior players like Paul O'Connell, Rory Best and Jamie Heaslip, I can't see too much deterioration in this area.

Then there are the areas where we have an embarrassment of riches.  I'm thinking numbers 9, 11 and 14 in particular.  This can be as much a curse as a blessing, but with these particular positions, with Joe Schmidt as coach favouring a certain type of game from his wide players and Johnny Sexton being such a grumpy git at 10 I'd say the players who adapt their style of play to what they're looking for the most will get the nod.

Yeah, and then there's Johnny.  You can be sure that broken jaw won't be the last time we'll have our own nails chewed off this season.  If he is coming back to Leinster (edit - thankfully we got confirmation that he is a couple of hours after publishing) that will of course be great for us fans, but what will be even better is that once the Top14 vampaign ends he can come back under the IRFU wing before the World Cup, and that couldn't happen soon enough.

In the meantime, however, we must establish a permanent option to replace him because even if we LITERALLY wrap him in cotton wool there's a chance we could lose him to injury at any moment.  Hopefully someone will be able to emerge from the supporting pack of Jackson, Madigan and Keatley over the coming season.

FANS

I want all Irish fans to back Joe Schmidt.  "Of course you do", some of you may say, given his Leinster credentials.  

But the reality is that I urged HoR readers to back Declan Kidney going into the RWC2011.  Even though our Six Nations performances got steadily worse after 2009 I said we must back them for our quest of that Holy Grail, and at the time I thought beating the Wallabies and topping the group was the bulk of the work.  Unfortunately Warren Gatland had other ideas.

Do I feel any differently now?  Absolutely not.  Hopefully Ireland will be able to kick on from last season's success in the build-up to the World Cup, but I can't help feeling that one poor display will bring the nay-sayers out in force.  Belief is the most potent weapon a true supporter can wield and we must be sure ours remains within our reach right up until our pool campaign begins in just over 12 months' time.

******

So there we have it.  Much to look forward to for Ireland this season, and certainly much to discuss.  

There may not have been any current Irish players in that epic RWC2015 promo featuring Tywin Lannister, but I very much doubt Joe Schmidt will need anything that to motivate his troops for the battles ahead.  

Here's hoping our quest for the Holy Grail goes more like Game of Thrones and less like Monty Python! I'd be pretty confident that it will. JLP

On Friday, this series comes to a close with a preview of Glasgow v Leinster and a look towards the season ahead for Matt O'Connor's men.
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