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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 23 May, 2018
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Captain O'Connell set to be unleashed as Ireland turn to Scotland Test

A number of Joe Schmidt’s squad players impressed during the win over Wales in Cardiff.

39 DAYS AND counting.

The World Cup draws ever closer for Ireland, now ranked as the second best team in the international game. After comfortably dispatching a disjointed Wales team on Saturday, attention turns to the visit of Scotland.

Monday morning’s review session will consign the 35-21 victory over Warren Gatland’s second string to the past, as preparation for the Scots begins in the afternoon.

Paul O'Connell O'Connell is likely to be involved against the Scots at the Aviva on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Vern Cotter’s men will hope to offer up a firmer test of Ireland’s ability this coming Saturday at the Aviva Stadium (KO 17.00), although the prospect of Joe Schmidt giving a handful of his front-liners starting chances means his side is likely to improve.

It is expected that captain Paul O’Connell will stretch his legs for the first time this season at the Dublin venue, while Schmidt might be tempted to put the likes of Tommy Bowe and Robbie Henshaw out for a gallop after his squad players impressed in Cardiff.

The Kiwi head coach has the difficult task of cutting his training squad by up to seven players this week too, meaning less experienced men like Jack Conan, Rob Herring, Craig Gilroy and Noel Reid may face the coming days with some trepidation.

Everything Ireland do now is built towards excelling in Pool D of the World Cup and another cohesive display against Scotland is part of that plan. Some may view these fixtures only as individual auditions, but Schmidt’s group see the summer Tests as an opportunity to build further on the form that brought them two Six Nations titles.

With that in mind, the victory over Wales offered further signs of the positive competition for places within Ireland’s squad, and the importance of the group as a whole.

This Ireland set-up is not just about O’Connell, Johnny Sexton and Murray. Those even on the very fringes of the group feel as important to the results as the try-scorers and public heroes.

IrelandÕs Donnacha Ryan Ryan made a big impression against Wales.

The most telling quotes from Ireland’s media work at Carton House last week were Schmidt’s when asked what good he sees in Donnacha Ryan, who went on to make a strong impression on his return to the international game against the Welsh.

“Donnacha’s actually been in camp a few times, he came in at the back end of camp a couple of seasons ago and did a fantastic job of organising the opposition line-out,” said Schmidt of the Munster second row.

It might seem like an odd detail for Schmidt to bring up, a couple of seasons after the fact, but it points to a pair of core components of his coaching philosophy.

Firstly, that training must be as close to Test match standard as possible and, secondly, every single member of the squad is of major value.

Saturday’s clash in Wales was a chance for the likes of Felix Jones, Fergus McFadden, Darren Cave, Eoin Reddan, Ryan, Iain Henderson, Richardt Strauss and Keith Earls to start and shine – all men who have probably been frustrated not to feature more in recent seasons but who have contributed to the training-ground effort and squad standards.

Last week, the likes of Sexton, O’Connell and Sean O’Brien reversed roles and looked to provide the fiercest training opposition they could, ensuring that Ireland’s unfamiliar (though admittedly experienced) XV delivered against Wales.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt places great value in his squad. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt’s words on Ryan’s contribution to an opposition lineout two seasons ago underline his conscious effort to stress how important squad players are. Even in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Six Nations success in Paris, he spoke about men who had missed out through injury but had contributed to the cause.

That mindset reaped rewards last November when Ireland had a serious-looking injury ‘crisis’ – Schmidt never once pointed to the lengthy injury list himself – and it will be important again if any front-liners go down with injury before or during the World Cup.

In terms of squad morale, Schmidt’s efforts to laud his squad players are important too, bringing to mind the words of the legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh:

The bitching of the bottom 20% often overshadows the enthusiasm of the other 80%. I was conscientious in repeating the message (that the squad players were important) privately through the season and acknowledging them publicly; talking about their roles and their potential impact in the future.”

The returning O’Connell and co. might steal the thunder in the coming weeks and months, but behind the scenes the work of others – even some of those who are cut this week – will not go unappreciated.

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Murray Kinsella

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