Let’s Get Warmed Up

And so, this weekend, begins Ireland’s World Cup campaign, with what should be a good hit-out away to Wales.

As Gerry outlined to good effect this morning, it’s customary for Ireland to perform dreadfully in these world cup warm-ups, but how much meaning should be attached to that dreadfulness is hard to gauge. Eight years ago, Ireland carried awful form into the World Cup and simply never got going.

Four years ago the same happened, with Kidney forced into the drastic action of dropping entirely the one scrum half he had staked all his chips on playing into form. But Kidney’s team were an emotionally driven side, and seemed to thrive most when they appeared at their lowest ebb, and the sense of looming crisis ultimately played into their favour, in the pool games at least, before the tournament came crashing down in the quarter-finals.

Schmidt’s brood are the opposite, so if absolutely nothing is working well and Ireland conspire to lose all their warm-up games, then it probably is a cause for concern. Joe will be looking for signs that his charges are capable of playing to whatever instruction he has deemed the order of the day for this upcoming, monumental challenge. Just what that is remains to be seen. Schmidt has earned the reputation of a ruthless pragmatist over the course of two Six Nations campaigns, with a strategy high on aerial bombardment and low on offloading, but it’s worth recalling that in the last 120 minutes of the 2015 Six Nations campaign, with Ireland required to chase a Welsh lead, and build a large points haul against Scotland, they kept the ball in hand to great effect. Will he stick to that approach in the World Cup?

Ireland have four warm-up games, but in reality it’s a six (maybe seven depending on Sergio Parisse’s fitness)-match lead-in before the real stuff begins, because the first pool games are against the minnows. So there’s no need to panic if – as seems likely – Ireland play with a total lack of cohesion this weekend. There’s time yet to get the form going.

For all that, though, it’s a nice enough looking team Schmidt has put out; his strongest available props, a spine of experience and plenty of ‘nice to have you back’ uplift from players who missed large chunks of last season. And as usual, there’s plenty of scope for looking out to see who is ‘putting their hands up’ for the last few places in the world cup squad.

Donncha Ryan, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden are all welcome returnees. Ryan is in a face-off with Tuohy for the last second row place, so he gets a chance to put down a marker of some sort. Terrific, aggressive players both, but prone to injury, it may be a literal case of survival of the fittest. Tuohy is on the bench.  Keith Earls is selected at 13, which will cause frothing in several quarters (welcome back Leinsterlion), but it’s worth remembering that while he is not the complete outside centre by any means, he’s not bad either; try focussing on what he does well there rather than what he doesn’t. He’s a player Schmidt has referenced a lot while he’s been injured, so this is a welcome opportunity to see him in green.  With a maximum of 14 backs making the final cut, there is a premium on versatility, and if Earls can capably cover centre and wing, it puts him in the box-seat.

Trimble was last seen winning all sorts of awards, and is now an established ‘Schmidt favourite’. If he can get back even a shard of the form he had before injury, he can be a huge player this World Cup. McFadden’s chances of making the touring party look more remote, but it will be nice to see a few head-first charges into Welsh tacklers anyway.

The half-back pairing looks nice: Reddan and Jackson. They’re most likely going to be Ireland’s test-match back-ups so it’s time they got to know each other a little better. Jackson was playing quite beautifully at the end of the season. If he can produce that form again he can not only establish himself as first reserve, but become a player worth introducing from the bench for material impact.

In the pack, the main cause for excitement will be Iain Henderson’s selection. His wild, unrestrained style is a thing to behold and his form towards the back end of last season was astonishing. We’ll talk more on the topic next week, but he could make an unanswerable case for test XV selection. The backrow is light on size, but high on work-rate. Jamie Heaslip is flanked by O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy, who, conventional wisdom has it, are auditioning for the last back-row berth in the squad. Don’t be afraid to pass to each other, boys.