Injury worries and mixed forecasts as Schmidt's Ireland eye up Scots

The Ireland forwards are set to be key with rain expected in Yokohama.

A DOWN DAY in Japan today meant Ireland’s players hopping on the train into Tokyo and seeing more of what this magnificent country has to offer.

A group headed into the ‘Sumo Town’ district of Ryogoku this morning to watch wrestlers at the famed Isegahama stable training. It’s a busy time for sumo – the national sport in Japan – with one of the six annual tournaments currently in action, and coverage dominating the sports pages and TV bulletins.

Cian Healy was particularly enthusiastic about seeing some of these professional wrestlers training up close, and you’d have to fancy his chances in the dohyō if Ireland ever have a tournament of their own.

Other players strolled Tokyo to sample more of the sensational cuisine or take in some of the thousands of tourist sights in a remarkable city.

Tonight, however, it is back down to business as Ireland train in Chiba in the morning and then depart for Yokohama in the afternoon, setting up camp there ahead of Sunday’s pool A opener against Scotland. Suddenly, Joe Schmidt’s men are five days from kicking off their World Cup campaign and it all feels very real.

“It’s kind of mental when you think we rocked up to Carton House for pre-season on 16 June and that seems so long ago, but it’s just really crept up on us,” said prop John Ryan.

While there’s plenty of excitement in the Ireland camp about finally getting into action, there has been understandable concern on the outside due to the injuries that have hit Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney this week, adding to worries over Keith Earls.

For Henshaw to tear his hamstring and then Kearney to feel his calf tighten has raised some concerns about what Ireland have been doing in training that is causing these soft tissues injuries.

Behind closed doors, it’s easy to imagine Joe Schmidt being hugely frustrated, but publicly Ireland say they’re happy with how they have been preparing.

“Obviously, you never want to see anyone getting injured when you’re coaching but there’s not a huge concern at the moment, we’ve got a really good plan,” said assistant strength and conditioning coach Ciaran Ruddock.

“I think we are coming together really well but even if you look at the players who are fit and healthy coming into this tournament, we’re confident that we’ve periodised it really well to allow the guys to be performing at their best now.” 

rob-kearney Dan Sheridan / INPHO Rob Kearney is a doubt for this weekend. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

One player’s misfortunate is another’s opportunity, of course, and with Henshaw set to miss the Scotland game at least – his participation in this World Cup is still not certain – Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose seem likely to start in midfield, though Chris Farrell is another strong option.

If Kearney misses out, as looks very likely despite Ireland’s optimism, Jordan Larmour’s 387 minutes at fullback for Ireland – compared to Andrew Conway’s 173 – have him in pole position to start at 15, although Conway would step in on the right wing if Earls’ knee injury doesn’t come good.

Conway, Larmour and Jacob Stockdale starting in the back three is a strong prospect.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will likely be in the halfbacks, while it is the forward pack who will have the biggest say in deciding Sunday’s clash.

Ireland have had success bullying Scotland in recent years and a front row of Cian Healy, Rory Best, and Tadhg Furlong would be looking for scrum dominance. Excitingly for Ireland, they could also have the serious bench impact of Dave Kilcoyne, Sean Cronin, and Andrew Porter.

“A lot of props are playing 40, 45, 50 minutes, then getting subbed off, doing their job to maybe set the tone for the first 40,” said Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek. “If you’re an attack coach like Joe and you’ve got big guys who can do the set-piece and they can carry the ball, then you get very excited.”

It has to be presumed that Ireland’s lineout will be receiving a lot of attention from the Scots. Iain Henderson – if he starts ahead of Jean Kleyn – will be tasked with calling it, while James Ryan will do so if Kleyn gets the nod to lock down on the tighthead side.

There is, of course, no Devin Toner here in Japan. 

“It will be different not having Dev here to go through what our menu might be for the next week or reviewing our last game,” said Henderson, before underlining that he and Ryan – as well as Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne – have got it covered.

iain-henderson Dan Sheridan / INPHO Iain Henderson could be tasked with calling the Irish lineout. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Interestingly, forwards coach Simon Easterby suggested that Ireland’s lineout wobbles during the warm-up games, most notably against England, may have been down to experimentation with their set-up.

“We’ve tried to create a couple of new pictures for the opposition,” said Easterby. “We’ve tried to emphasise a couple of different things. The lineout performance against England might have been a slight reflection of that.”

Whatever it was, Ireland need to be rock solid on their throw or Scotland – with Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg central – will thrive off turnover possession. 

But it feels as though Ireland have the greater ability to control a game such as this against Scotland, with Sexton and Murray steering the ship. The kick battle will be interesting, although Ireland need to throw variety at the Scots in that sense, while Gregor Townsend’s men would love to test Ireland without Kearney in the backfield.

Right now, there are mixed reports regarding the conditions. Ireland seemed confident there would be torrential downpour on Sunday in Yokohama but said today they are now anticipating less rain. 

It is very likely to be wet for Ireland’s first game – thunderstorm or lighter rain depending on who you listen to – but either way, Ireland should have the goods to start this World Cup strongly.

After the injury setbacks this week, disappointment against the Scots would leave Schmidt and his squad very much on the back foot. Time to show their quality.

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