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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 14 December, 2019
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Heavy artillery in place and room for error diminishing fast

Saturday provides a vital springboard for Johnny Sexton and Ireland to hit a rhythm before the World Cup.

TWO WINS FROM three so far in Ireland’s Rugby World Cup warm-up schedule and, if all goes to plan over the next eight weeks then we’ll quickly forget whether the ratio comes to rest at 3:1 or 2:2.

Form is important though, it builds confidence both inside and outside of the team. A fine margin that begins to look very thick indeed when games are in the mixer and collective anxiety from players or even a crowd – or lack of it – can be a tipping point.

After some excellent and some iffy moments last week in Cardiff, this weekend’s final warm-up poses a far more active threat from Warren Gatland’s Grand Slam winners. And so, Joe Schmidt will be delighted to be able to unleash his star playmakers.

Jonathan Sexton was, according to his head coach, close to being fit for both England and Wales clashes last month, but this week he will finally get a chance to blow off the cobwebs a fortnight out from the defining World Cup Pool A opener in Yokohama.

jonathan-sexton-and-joe-schmidt Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It goes without saying at this stage, but the world player of the year is absolutely central to Ireland’s attacking gameplan. His kicking from hand guides the team around the field and the cut and thrust of his play-calling and passing puts a slick veneer on the set moves Ireland base so much of their success on.

That Conor Murray will be in harness alongside his long-term half-back partner is an added bonus. The Munster man gave us all a worrying sight when he shipped a head knock during the loss to England. And, while Sexton and Murray both came in for a lot of criticism for their performances during Ireland’s Six Nations slide, Schmidt will need both of them returning to the peak of their powers to bring Ireland back into a 2018 rhythm.

Up against the muscle of Gatland’s Wales, Schmidt has picked an incredibly physical and robust pack. Peter O’Mahony’s blindside spot is filled by CJ Stander, with Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier promising relentless energy in contact.

James Ryan calmed Irish nerves no end with his return last weekend and he will be joined in a veritable house of pain of a second row by Jean Kleyn – bound for the World Cup after two Test appearances. That combination gives Ryan a valuable opportunity to call the line-out against quality opposition like Alun Wyn Jones, while Iain Henderson can take a turn in that role from the bench.

jean-kleyn-and-james-ryan Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On the back of his immense carrying display in the Principality, Dave Kilcoyne will have to content himself with an impact role from the bench as Schmidt gets his first-choice front row together to set a platform against Wales.

Along with Sexton and Henshaw, Keith Earls also enters the fray for his first appearance of the World Cup season. And while Jacob Stockdale’s absence means the back-line isn’t what you’d call a first choice, the presence of the prolific Limerick man further gives this line-up a familiar feel, with a steady spine from Rob Kearney through the half-backs, Ryan and the front row that means the time for trial runs and experimentation is very nearly over.

Almost every area of the team has tried, tested and experienced combinations in place.  So an adverse outcome in terms of performance (not so much result) will make errors and excuses very difficult to explain away between September 7 and D day on September 22 in Yokohama.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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