Sunday, August 30, 2015

When Warm-ups Attack

The games haven’t always been friendly to us, writes Ciaran Duffy
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Today is the last world cup warm-up before Joe Schmidt announces his 31-man squad.  Warm-ups are unusual games in the rugby calendar.  Aside from competitions such as the World cup and Six Nations, usually Ireland’s other games are Autumn internationals and summer tours.  And these are by no means ‘friendlies’.  When the Southern Hemisphere big guns come to town it’s a chance to impress and claim a scalp.  Even the less glamorous games against the likes of Georgia or Samoa are a chance to get the squad together after being with their provinces, as well as a chance for some fringe players to break into the team. 

With warm-ups, there is just less importance on the results, it’s purely about the performance.  Sure the score line does affect the world rankings, but whether Ireland are 1, 2 or 3 places behind New Zealand in the rankings is hardly a priority right now.  It’s about finding out works and what doesn’t, before it’s too late.  It’s about trying new combinations before mistakes become more costly.  It’s all about seeing which players on the periphery of the squad gel at this late stage. 

Joes rotated well in the warm ups so far.  36 players used in the two games so far with 6 more set to make their first appearance today.  42 players for a 31-man squad shows a very open competition for places.  Add into this Cian Healy, who could still travel even if he’s not fit until one of the later pool games, and possibly even others who featured in pre-season games for their provinces, who may not make the squad, but will push those in contention to perform well.  In terms of trying new combinations, we’ve seen Cave and Earls, we’ve seen D’Arcy and Payne, and I think everyone interested in rugby in Ireland is excited to see Henshaw and Fitzgerald.  The preparations been good so far and nobody got carried away with the victory over a third string Welsh side, because it’s all about the performance, the performance that will win or lose a place on the plain. 

Unfortunately, there’s another way to lose a place, injury.  We saw one in the first game, with Tommy O’Donnell being ruled out of the tournament.  O’Donnell was a terrific impact sub and surely would have been in contention, he’s a big loss.  Just as David Wallace was a big loss before the 2011 campaign.  He was in the squad until twisting his knee after taking a tackle from Manu Tuilagi.  In a second, that was a key player for Ireland out of the tournament.  Felix Jones had been ruled out after an ankle injury in the previous game against France, his place had not been confirmed, but he was likely to be there.  This is how warm-ups can change the dynamic of a team.  If Ireland lose a key player like Sexton, Heaslip or O’Connell, there will be a void in the squad.  Even losing a fringe player who may have been back up has a negative impact; it takes away the squad depth and reduces the competitiveness for their position.  Warm-ups are necessary to give player game time and there is no way around injuries in a full contact sport, but there is still a danger of having the squad selection simplified through injuries.
 
On top of this, sometimes the warm-ups are just plain ugly.  There is nothing about Irelands 2007 world cup campaign that we should remember too fondly.  After narrowly missing out on the Six Nations crown, this was billed as “Irelands best chance to win a world cup”.  Now it does have to be considered in the previous competitions, Ireland didn’t really have any chance at all, but that being said, we had a strong team and although we were in a tough group, qualification was in reach.  But then, between the Italy game on the last day of the Six Nations, and the opening pool game against Namibia, slowly the air was let out of the tires. 

First Ireland lost two tests against Argentina, in May and June.  And then, two months later, Ireland lost their first warm-up to Scotland.  But the worst part of this run was the Italy game.  Despite it being Irelands only win on this run, it was the most troubling display.  Italy were ahead at half time, and until very late in the game.  It took a Ronan O’Gara try, well past the clock going red, to secure a narrow victory.  There are two important things to note; the first is the try should have been awarded, as O’Gara hadn’t grounded the ball.  The second is, minus Horgan, Wallace and O’Driscoll, this was the expected starting line up.  Those are three key players, but this was an Italian side Ireland had beaten by 27 points months earlier.  This indicated there was a lack of fluidity between the first team and those also in the squad, there was a very definite starting line up.  It’s important that the second string fire, it boosts the performance of the first team as well as making them better replacements when they are needed.  A clinical attitude where under performers are dropped is what makes for a squad of champions.   

The performances here did take their toll on the world cup.  It was clear during the Namibia game the team wasn’t quite warmed up, allowing them to achieve their best result against a top tier side.  And then there was Georgia.  If Namibia was cause for concern, the Georgia game was cause to start packing the bags.  Not getting the bonus point was bad enough, but after nearly losing the game, things looked desperate.  Two losses to France and Argentina, and Ireland had crashed out of the group stage for the first time. 

Injuries can’t be avoided in rugby, they happen.  But the performances are controllable.  If Ireland win playing badly because the Welsh played worse that is a meaningless win, and we should not get ahead of ourselves about it.  It’s all about the performance of Ireland.  They need to hit the ground running in the group stages, even the first fixtures are against the weaker opposition, and ensure two try-scoring bonus points, with a high point differential to put France and Italy under pressure (having a better points difference than teams has been a good omen for us recently).  It’s not a 15-man team plus subs that are sent to the world cup, it’s a 31-man squad, all of whom should expect to play a part, and push to play a part.  There’s a squad depth here that Ireland have not had before, reminiscent of the one Leinster had when they were the best team in Europe.  With that squad depth comes the need for everyone to raise their game.  Warm-ups can either provide momentum and chances, or they can derail a campaign before it has had a chance to begin.  Winning the world cup starts with warming up the right way, not necessarily by maintaining a 100% record, but by putting in 100% from the beginning. 

(Side note: I can’t put into words how difficult it was to write this article without resorting to phrases like “The heat is on” or “Getting fired up”.  We need a support group for avoiding lazy Idioms.  If anyone needs me I’ll be sitting by a radiator)

Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously.  He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.


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