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Ireland to test 'new combinations' for World Cup warm-up in Wales

Forwards coach Simon Easterby says some of the XV ‘won’t have been tested at this level before’.

THIS WEEKEND’S CLASH between Ireland and Wales at the Millennium Stadium is a tricky one to figure out.

A sellout crowd of 74,000 underlines the fact that it’s a Test match in its own right, although the experimental nature of Warren Gatland’s starting team for Saturday’s encounter drags us back to the sense that this is shadow boxing before the World Cup.

Jamie Heaslip Jamie Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O'Connell and Cian Healy at Carton House today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The trip to Cardiff is the beginning of the march towards September for Ireland, with games against Scotland, Wales again and England to follow before Joe Schmidt brings his finalised 31-man group to the quadrennial tournament.

Some will watch these games merely hoping that none of Ireland’s biggest stars pick up injuries, others will be excited by the prospect of seeing less experienced players grab their opportunities to shine.

Whatever way you look at it, it’s all about the World Cup. So what are Schmidt and his fellow coaches keen to see against Wales on Saturday?

I think the most important thing is that we get performance,” said Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby at Carton House earlier today.

“We (want to) get performance from individuals, from combinations, units and then we’ve got something to work from. That’s probably our priority, that our performance and accuracy is really good, and then we can build on that throughout August.”

The composition of Ireland’s matchday 23 won’t be known for sure until Thursday, but the sense is that there will be some experimentation from Schmidt too.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt will name his team on Thursday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Keith Earls and Jordi Murphy were on media duty at Carton House today, often an indicator of involvement at the weekend, while Easterby also stated that some players will be new to this level of rugby on Saturday.

Uncapped Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan would surely fall into that category, while Connacht duo Denis Buckley and Nathan White are among those to have been added to the original 45-man Ireland squad over recent weeks.

Whatever the selection is, Easterby points out that preparations have been as intense as ever.

I can tell you in terms of training that it’s a Test week,” said Easterby. “I think for the players that are involved this weekend, it’s a massive opportunity, not just to shine themselves but also hopefully shine as a team and combinations that we’ll put out there.

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“Some of them won’t have been tested at this level before, so we’ll know quite a bit more about certain players and combinations after Saturday, but it is a Test match. It’s the first game after a summer break, so it’s a couple of months since players have played a bit of rugby.

“We have to hit the ground running, we have to be able to see what’s out there in terms of new combinations and assess the players under a bit of fatigue. They’re going to be tired, they’re going to be blowing a bit come the 60 or 70-minute mark, having not played for a while. It’s a great test for us and it is without a doubt a Test match.”

Jonathan Sexton and Darren Cave Johnny Sexton with Ulster's Darren Cave. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Easterby says the Welsh XV is an “exciting” one, name checking the likes of Jake Ball and Dominic Day, as well as the highly-promising pair of Dragons centre Tyler Morgan and fullback Hallam Amos.

The visit to Cardiff brings up some recent bad memories for Easterby too, a Six Nations defeat after which Ireland “weren’t particularly happy”.

The actual composition of Schmidt’s XV for this weekend – and the other three World Cup warm-ups – will be of interest of course, although it will also be fascinating to see how Ireland play in the coming weeks.

Holding their very best power plays and starter moves back for the more meaningful tests to follow would seem wise, but there are likely to be hints of new designs in Cardiff this weekend too.

We wouldn’t be throwing everything out there in each game, but a combination of things,” said Easterby. “It’s important that you test these things at the Test level and that’s probably the way we’re going in terms of strategy for the game.

“We want performance first and foremost and with that comes a little bit of familiarity to things we might have done in the past and also some of the things we might want to build on going into the World Cup.”

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Murray Kinsella

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