September 6, 2015
First off there were a couple of surprises in the squad that Ireland selected for the World Cup. Tadhg Furlong instead of Michael Bent was a clear shock given Bents proven ability to play on both sides of the scrum. Furlong was identified as a guy who could fulfil the same role despite never playing loosehead above underage level. The selection of just 2 scrum-halves was also a surprise, and a risk given that it will require both to be in each match-day squad, unless of course Ian Madigan is asked to cover that position as well. The exclusion of Trimble and the inclusion of Darren Cave was also unexpected. Cave is being taken as back-up 12, a role we felt wasn't covered properly without him. So that is good to see. Trimble on the other hand lost out due to the injury he picked up in the first Wales game, combined with all the time he missed due to injury last season. Dave Kearney took his place and beyond that it was as expected.
This means that Ireland have a pretty strong squad heading to England next week. Bringing Furlong suggests that the coaches are very positive about Healys chances of returning to full match fitness. And that is a massive positive for the squad. Healy has been training fully for over a week now so you would imagine he will feature in Irelands opening 2 games, starting at least 1 of them. Particularly given all the game time Jack McGrath has gotten in the last few weeks. Conor Murrays knock to the head sees him follow the return to play protocols but he seemed completely lucid at the end of the match in Twickenham so we'd imagine he'll be good to go next week.
All in all this means that Ireland have their first choice pack available going into the tournament. The half backs and centres should all be fit and Rob Kearney (who picked up a knee injury in training) seems to be on target for a return against Italy at the latest. That just leaves the wing positions where we have Trimble injured but everyone else fully fit. And when you look at the replacements as well the injury list is quite short too. Tommy O'Donnell may have struggled to get into the squad ahead of Chris Henry if he was fit so that injury may not really count. Rhys Ruddock probably would have taken a spot ahead of Jordi Murphy but that's about it. So Ireland are in a very good place squad wise heading into the competition.
THE WARM UPS
Ireland started the warm-ups with a good win against a very weak Welsh side in Cardiff. It needs to be stated that while the first choice Welsh squad is a good one they really do lack the same kind of depth that Ireland have. Hence the very one sided game last month. It's hard to say that anybody learned anything of note from that one. Against Scotland Ireland had a poor showing against a Scottish side that were well and truly up for the encounter. Were Ireland? It didn't seem like the intensity levels were there at all and it really did seem like a dead rubber from Ireland's perspective. They still won it in the end even with Scotland playing almost all the rugby. With so many guys playing their first game in unfamiliar combinations it wasn't ever going to be pretty. About all Ireland learned from that was that Gordon D'Arcy, the longest serving Irish player of all time, was truly finished at international level. A true legend of the game in Ireland who was often hidden by the shadow of his centre partner it was sad to see. But time waits for no man. So after 2 weeks Ireland were 2 from 2. The performance against Scotland may have been poor but to win playing badly says a lot.
Next up was the return visit of the Welsh to Dublin. Wales needed to win that game badly. They had been embarrassed in Cardiff and only had a home game against Italy left in their warm-ups. Given their pool they needed to win 1 of their games against Ireland. They also needed to be much further along in their preparation than we did given that they face England in Twickenham in the second round. Both of these factors shone through in a game where Wales were by far the better side. Some of Ireland's starters who were playing their first game looked miles off the pace, even Paul O'Connell in his farewell home game in green. More unfamiliar combinations didn't help and yet somehow Ireland got themselves into a winning position at the death, with Sean Cronin unfortunately being held up over the line. Had he dotted that down Ireland would have won the game. It says a lot that despite once again being second best Ireland were still able to get themselves into a position to win the game. The game plan, skills and execution may have been missing but the leadership, drive and winning mentality certainly were not. Their heads were very much in the right place and that was a huge positive to take from a game that, in reality, meant nothing at all.
Finally Ireland went to Twickenham and faced yet another situation where the opposition badly needed a win after an embarrassing defeat while also being further along in their preparation. The first half was all one way traffic and was very frustrating from an Irish perspective. Tommy Bowe in particular had an utter horror show. And yet in the second half Ireland came back into the game really well. A break away off a turnover could, and should, have led to a try that would have put Ireland in front but for a poorly timed and executed pass from Henshaw. The final quarter should be written off due to the knocks Ireland picked up and the changes required that saw 3 props in the pack and Henry on the wing. Up until then Ireland were in a great position given the context. It was a nothing game away to the hosts who desperately needed the win and had to be firing on all cylinders ahead of a tough pool. Ireland needed to be gaining match fitness and not much else. Again, the heads were in the right place with the skill levels being a little off. But if you look at the last 3 games side by side you can also see gradual improvements in the skill levels over the warm-up series.
Overall I think it's fair to say that there really isn't much to worry about yet in terms of where Ireland stand going into the World Cup. The squad is in really good shape with no serious injuries to big players like David Wallace 4 years ago or Geordan Murphy 12 years ago. The only injury to a first choice player is Trimble, but that is in an area where there are plenty of options and competition is fierce. Just look at the form Dave Kearney is currently showing. It doesn't look like we have too much to worry about on that front, even if Bowe can't re-find his form.
From a skills point of view there were gradual improvements from game to game in the warm-ups and there's another 3 weeks before the Italy game and 4 weeks before the France game. The schedule for Ireland in the pools allows for a step up each week and that will suit us down to the ground in terms of building towards the crucial France game. So from that perspective it is far too early to be worrying about that element.
Finally is the game plan aspect of Ireland's warm-ups. There has been a lot of negative press on that and a lot of talk about keeping cards close to the chest. In all of that it should be pointed out that Ireland have relied heavily on two things for their success in the last 2 years. The first thing they've relied on is strike plays. Individual moves designed to create a line break and lead to a try. Look at the Kearney try in Twickenham in the 2014 6 Nations for a perfect example of that. Ireland have utilised moves off the line-out, offensive kicking strategies (Bowe against South Africa) and various other techniques in this regard. The other thing that Ireland have relied on is the detailed analysis of opposition sides that identify areas that can be targeted. The France game in the Aviva this year had a clear example of that where Ireland targeted the French left wing due to Nakitaci's lack of positional awareness. Both of these things have been the bedrock of how Ireland approach games. And we saw neither in the warm-ups with the exception of 2 strike moves off the line-out against Wales and England. We saw neither because Ireland were not using those games as practice sessions for the World Cup. They were using them to give guys game time and develop match fitness in the squad. Our coaches and players have not forgotten how to come up with and implement successful game plans. We have a lot left in the locker and we will start seeing that as the tournament progresses.
So it's far too early for panic or worry. Ireland have come through the warm-ups about as successfully as they could have given the circumstances. They now have a perfect schedule of games to allow them to start reaching their peak in early October. The World Cup is not won in August, it is won in October. And the teams that can make the knock outs in good health and hitting their best form will be the most successful. Can Ireland win the Webb Ellis? In our view they can certainly make the semi-finals. And from there it's anybody's really. What Ireland do have that most other teams don't is a squad that are used to winning trophies and know what it takes. That could prove very important. Without a doubt though the single most important game is the France game. That will make or break Ireland's chances. And we all know that nobody knows what France will show up.....
Pardon the cliche!