By Phil Rice
There was a palpable feeling of relief among the spectators at the Aviva Stadium at the conclusion of Ireland’s comfortable victory over Grand Slam champions Wales.
After the less than satisfactory Six Nations, there was a concern that perhaps the team had peaked too soon in 2018, and had lost their way since the turn of the New Year.
When head coach Joe Schmidt revealed that he had told the squad at the beginning of this year that 2019 would be all about the World Cup, it became clear that Ireland had not inexplicably lost their way, but just had higher priorities for this year.
It can be argued that placing the World Cup above all else prior to the Six Nations might not have been the greatest strategy, as the loss of confidence after sub-standard performances could have had a lasting impact.
However, the second half of Ireland’s final warm-up game against Wales was reassuring, demonstrating that when Ireland play with close ball control and to their strengths, they are still a formidable team.
Wales had no answer to the short passing and close support running that Ireland adopted. That was the style they adopted so successfully throughout 2018, with the half backs controlling and varying their game.
POOL A FIXTURES
IRELAND v Scotland
International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama
Sunday 22nd September
kick-off 4.45pm local time/8.45am Irish time
Japan v IRELAND
Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa, Shizuoka
Saturday 28th September 28
kick-off 4.15pm local time/8.15am Irish time
IRELAND v Russia
Kobe Misaki Stadium, Kobe
Thursday 3rd October
kick-off 7.15pm local time/11.15am Irish time
IRELAND v Samoa
Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium, Fukuoka
Saturday 12th October
kick-off 7.45pm local time/11.45am Irish time
Clearly Schmidt believes this will be the most effective strategy when they face Scotland in their opening match in Japan on Sunday.
Ireland have started recent tournaments poorly and they will be desperate to overcome this trait. Scotland are a potential banana skin and are capable of upsetting the best teams.
Gregor Townsend’s team outplayed England in their Six Nations match in March and they will be a tough side to break down. Ireland cannot afford to kick loosely to their outstanding back three strike runners.
The Irish pack should dominate their Scottish counterparts and Conor Murray will utilise their strong ball carriers to get over the gain-line, and then exploit the space they have created.
The centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki may not be the most exciting combination to watch, but they are very effective ball carriers and they give their backrow target rucks to hit, in order to maintain forward momentum.
Garry Ringrose will be disappointed at this turn of events, but his pacey outside breaks can be utilised against other opposition.
Scotland would love Ireland to play an expansive game but it would be a suicidal strategy for Schmidt to adopt.
Townsend’s side are past masters at exploiting broken play in wide areas and Schmidt is too smart to play into their hands.
Expect the Irish coach to select Iain Henderson to join the excellent James Ryan in the second row.
When Ryan took on the responsibility of becoming the lineout target, Ireland won all their own ball against Wales in Dublin.
There were many who felt that omitting Devin Toner from the squad was a mistake, but with a player of Ryan’s ability and mentality it was reassuring to see Ireland assuming control of an area that Wales were clearly targeting as a potential weakness.
Peter O’Mahony is likely to return to the blindside and he is another line out expert who can provide a viable alternative to Ryan and Henderson.
It was good to see CJ Stander return to something like his old self and he may have earned his place at number 8 ahead of Jack Conan.
Johnny Sexton returned to the fray and showed he certainly hasn’t lost his appetite for physical involvement. Ireland’s coaching team, however, must have been wincing at some of the hits he took from the Wales back row.
Murray too was much more like his old self, controlling the game expertly from scrum half.
There is a concern that Ireland have only two scrum halves in their squad and injury to either Murray or Luke McGrath could prove problematic.
Kieran Marmion will need to stay close to an airport in case his services are required at short notice, as there is no obvious alternative within the current squad.
Jacob Stockdale will return to the wing and depending on Keith Earl’s fitness the other wing will either be the Munsterman, Jordan Larmour or possibly Andrew Conway who impressed in the first game against Wales.
Townsend’s Scotland incurred some injuries to first choice players in their final warm up match against Georgia.
Their outstanding flanker Jamie Ritchie received a nasty facial injury, but the early alarming diagnosis seems to have been overstated and they are hopeful that he can take part in the tournament, possibly even against Ireland.
Blade Thomson and Jonny Gray both struggled with hamstring injuries.
Wales dropped a back row forward into the backs for their lineouts in an attempt to create more width and exploit Ireland’s tendency to defend narrowly.
It was encouraging to see how the home team dealt with this threat. Hopefully this failing has finally been dealt with, as we all remember the costly defensive errors out wide against Argentina at the last World Cup.
While Wales counterpart Warren Gatland was downbeat following events in Dublin two weeks ago, Schmidt looked relieved.
He is clearly doing everything within his power to take Ireland as far as is humanly possible in his farewell tournament as Irish coach.
His dedication to detail and all-consuming devotion to the Irish cause has been the hallmark of the most successful era for Irish rugby.
Regardless of the outcome of the next six weeks, he will be fondly remembered as Ireland’s best and most successful coach of all time.