By Phil Rice
In the first of four warm-up internationals ahead of the World Cup, Ireland face Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. After a month of intensive training the players will be keen to get some match time.
Joe Schmidt, who has since the time of writing returned to New Zealand due to a family bereavement, is unlikely to field many of his first-choice players for the game, as this is likely to be the easiest of Ireland’s warm-up games.
Ireland face England at Twickenham in two weeks, followed by back-to- back matches against Six Nations champions Wales.
There is a feeling that these four games are excessive and that perhaps only one, rather than two games, against Wales would be preferable.
Memories of serious injuries to David Wallace and Tommy O’Donnell in previous World Cup warm-up matches spring to mind, and Schmidt will be anxious to minimise any injuries, especially to key players.
Schmidt also knows that his team must be primed and ready for battle in their first RWC match against Scotland. Ireland have been slow starters in recent tournaments and cannot afford that in two months time.
Ireland’s World Cup warm up Fixtures
Saturday 10th August
Ireland v Italy
Aviva Stadium, 2pm
Saturday 24th August
England v Ireland
Saturday 31st August
Wales v Ireland
Principality Stadium, 2:30pm
Saturday 7th September
Ireland v Wales
Aviva Stadium, 2pm
The recent renaissance of South Africa since the introduction of the erstwhile Munster head coach Rassie Erasmus continued apace when they drew with the All Blacks in New Zealand.
This will be of concern to the Irish coach and players.
Should Ireland emerge from their pool as expected, they are likely to face either New Zealand or South Africa. They are arguably the two strongest teams in the world on current form.
The quarter-final voodoo that has dogged Ireland since the first World Cup in 1987, looks like it may continue despite the promising form that the national team showed up until this year’s Six Nations.
Schmidt, for whom this World Cup will be his swan-song as Ireland coach, will be desperate to finally smash the glass ceiling that the quarter-final stage has become for Ireland.
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— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) August 7, 2019
This year’s Six Nations came as something of a shock for Irish rugby supporters, after the outstanding 2018 they’d enjoyed.
Defeats by England and Wales were hard pills to swallow and some felt that the players had started to focus on the World Cup too soon. That theory will be tested soon.
Barring injury the starting team for the Scotland RWC match on the 22 September virtually picks itself. The only doubts surround one second-row position and possibly the make up of the back row.
Schmidt has tended to favour Devin Toner as James Ryan’s partner in the second-row, but Toner suffered a nasty knee ligament injury at the close of last season, and he may not be as match fit as the Irish coach might like.
Iain Henderson is breathing down Toner’s neck in terms of contention anyway and might get the nod in the circumstances. Should Tadhg Beirne shine in the warm up matches he might also come into consideration.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) August 6, 2019
The back row is likely to be made up of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander, however, the form of Jack Conan at the end of last season might see him challenge Stander for the number 8 shirt.
With the notable exception of James Ryan, none of Ireland’s forwards played anything like their best during the Six Nations, but Schmidt is unlikely to make many changes at this stage.
The squad will be reduced from 48 to 31 players prior to the World Cup and several contenders will see this weekend as possibly their last opportunity to catch Schmidt’s eye prior to the final cull.
The battle to be Conor Murray’s back up scrum halves will be one of the closest contests throughout the warm up games. Keiran Marmion, Luke McGrath, John Cooney and even Caolin Blade will be looking for the opportunity to win Schmidt’s approval.