So we have Part 2 of our pre-RWC mini-saga coming up on Saturday, and it’s our first look at the lads here on home turf. Expectations are bound to be high after last weekend’s display and rise in the rankings, and hopefully these feelings are something we can get used to over the coming weeks.
One question that has been bandied about the various commentary forums has been along the lines of “are four warm-ups too much to prepare for a World Cup, especially when our campaign kicks off with two contests against relative minnows anyway?”
Well, first of all, let’s assume that these decisions are made based on how the keyboard warriors would react. For me, it’s the classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation (which, come to think of it, is pretty much the case with most opinions put forth by us keyboard warriors!)
Now there’s no denying it, Tommy O’Donnell’s injury was tragic not only for him personally, but also for the squad. He has done everything asked of him and then some in his brief Ireland career to date, he was an integral part of a top notch back row last Saturday, and he was well in with a shout of making the top 23.
But should warm-up games have been sacrificed to avoid such an injury happening? Consider the alternative. We go the Wales route and have just the two matches, with precious few of the squad members getting the chance to put 80 minutes under their belts before the Big Show begins.
Then we play Canada and a couple of injuries happen. Now we’re relying on the next level of players to step up, but now they must do so with precious little game time since the end of last season. Why the hell didn’t you have more warm-ups, Joe?
Of course the decision wasn’t made with any regard to what we’d say. It was probably made with an acknowledgement that we happen to be blessed with several quality options at several positions, and should anything happen to the eventual matchday 23, we’ll need to be absolutely sure we’ve had a decent look before we settle on the other 8 in the final squad.
Besides, we all know how keen Joe is about having his players together and seeing how they actually perform when safe under the IRFU umbrella. So no matter what anyone did even in the last Six Nations championship, decisions are likely to be made more on how they performed not just in test matches like this one, but also in the day-to-day regime out in Carton House.
Which I suppose means that overall what I’m saying is...four warmups good, two warmups bad, at least for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. For Warren Gatland’s Wales it could be another thing entirely.
So maybe it’s about time I harped on this Saturday’s match. First up, Sean O’Brien as captain...love it. POC and Jamie have the honours for the major contest but it’s always good to recognise the other leaders in the squad and there’s no doubt The Tullow Tank is one of them.
At the other end of the scale we’ve young Jack Conan getting his first cap. Delighted for him after a whirlwind 12 months, and going by what Joe said of him at the team announcement yesterday he’s a shining example of how you can impress the coaching ticket in training…
"I think he had a good finish to the season, he impressed on the Emerging tour, we wanted to reward people who did impress on that tour, and he's impressed in training thus far so he has earned the right to have an opportunity and we hope that he acquits himself really well"
You know the rugby adage that goes “the first name on the teamsheet should be the tighthead”? Well for Ireland it seems we go one step further and say it should be Mike Ross. Clearly Messrs Feek & Easterby are keen to get more miles on his clock ahead of the World Cup and if he needs it, he should get it.
But then again the adage does go on…”...and the second name on your teamsheet should be your reserve tighthead”. Michael Bent was on the bench wearing 18 last week and his move down one number suggests he is being considered as a “switch-hitter” option. And then there’s Nathan White, who is an excellent option in his own right who hasn’t had enough chances to show what he can do since he qualified for Ireland. It will be interesting to see how the substitutions go on Saturday.
In the starting “engine room” this Saturday we have a serious case of the “DT”s with Dan Tuohy and Devin Toner getting the nod. The Ulsterman has definitely earned his place in the wider squad but whether he’s a top 3 or even 4 lock option I’m not so sure. His reputation as a card magnet plus the ability of both Henderson and Ryan to cover 6 would have them ahead of him in the pecking order but should injury befall any of those ahead of him he’d be well able to step in.
I’ve heard a lot of people surprised to see Gordon DArcy’s name mentioned in the starting lineup, with the general premise being that they somehow thought he was “past it”. Do people think BOD retirement somehow meant Gordon went with him as a “two-for” deal? Darce still has a lot to offer and a bit like Tuohy while I wouldn’t have him in my ideal 23 he’d be a more than able call up for injury so he’s well worth a look now.
Starting at outhalf we have the “Mad-Dog”. A good place-kicking outing coupled with a solid running of the offence could make Joe’s decision difficult should anything happen to Sexton. I wonder if we will be able to read much into his thinking based on the time he brings on Paddy Jackson or is the switch set in stone, we’ll have to see.
On the Scottish side of the equation, a few months ago it seemed to be a straight shoot-out between themselves and Samoa for second spot in their pool but with the Springboks showing signs of vulnerability lately you never know what could happen. Which of course means they can’t be taken for granted and even without the RWC places up for grabs they’ll no doubt be keen for some revenge for last March.
Prediction? Well given the amount of changes I’d be surprised if everything went as comfortably as last week, though of course Joe & co will very much be expecting them to. I’ll say Ireland by 15 in a (relatively given Scotland’s try-scoring issues) high-scoring affair. JLP