Schmidt keeping one eye on 2019 this autumn

Joe Schmidt already eyeing 2019 World Cup
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

By Phil Rice

Ireland begin their autumn international campaign on Saturday in Dublin with a tricky tie against an improving South Africa.

Head coach Joe Schmidt, who prepares fastidiously for matches, will be very aware that Ireland are quite likely to meet the Springboks in the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup.

Ireland should be favourites to win Pool A, with Scotland as their main challengers, while New Zealand should win Pool B, with South Africa as their principal rivals.

In that eventuality, Ireland would almost certainly meet the Springboks for a place in the semi-finals. The quarter-finals have proven to be a glass ceiling for Ireland in the past, as they have never progressed beyond that stage.

Schmidt will be aware that victory this week would lay down a marker with their potential opponents.

Just six weeks ago the Springboks lost to New Zealand by the record score of 57-0. An embarrassing result for such a proud rugby nation.

Unfortunate

But since then they have drawn away to Australia and in the return match with the All Blacks they were unfortunate to lose by just one point, 25-24, in Cape Town.

These two performances were in stark contrast to that forgettable day in Albany, New Zealand. They were also a more realistic reflection on the ability of these Springboks.

Make no mistake they will be aware that Ireland could be potential World Cup quarter-final opponents in 2019, and with Ireland just one place above them in the world rankings the South Africans will have plenty of motivation to give this weekend’s match their full attention.

Ireland dropped one place in the world rankings two weeks ago when Australia surprisingly beat the All Blacks, and moved into third place just ahead of Schmidt’s team. Ireland’s autumn internationals are against three of the most physical sides in world rugby.

Following Saturday’s opener with South Africa they entertain Fiji followed by Argentina. Schmidt will field his strongest side in the first and third matches and give some of his promising youngsters an opportunity against Fiji.

Joe Schmidt already eyeing 2019 World Cup
Jacob Stockdale of Ulster. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

With Simon Zebo seemingly excluded from Schmidt’s plans since he announced his departure to France at the end of this season, Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale has made a strong case to be included in this week’s team.

He is very much the modern three-quarter, six foot three and 17 stone with pace to burn. He has played full back and wing, so has excellent defensive skills, and is a deadly finisher. Schmidt must want to wrap Johnny Sexton in cotton wool.

Not only is he the catalyst of so much of the coach’s game plan, but since Paddy Jackson has been handed an indefinite sabbatical, there is no obvious replacement for Sexton should he become unavailable.

Ian Keatley and Joey Carbery are the two alternatives included in the squad and another option at a later date might be JJ Hanrahan. At this stage none of these players come close to the level of Sexton’s ability.

Joe Schmidt already eyeing 2019 World Cup
Connacht’s Bundee Aki. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

With Garry Ringrose recovering from surgery there is one vacant centre position and this may play perfectly into the hands of Bundee Aki, who has recently become eligible for Irish selection.

He has played alongside Robbie Henshaw with Connacht in the past and it would allow the Leinster centre to play in his preferred outside centre position.

The Springboks have a superb centre combination of their own, with Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel. Both are powerful and skilful runners who will provide a real test for the Irish midfield defence. The forward pack more or less selects itself in the absence of Jamie Heaslip.

Strongest pack

The back row of Lions, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander will be key for Ireland. Ireland’s Lions front row of Jack Mc- Grath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong is a formidable unit, and Ian Henderson and Devin Toner make up the second row.

While this is one of the strongest packs that Ireland have fielded in living memory, with seven of the eight involved in the recent Lions tour, South Africa have a formidable pack of their own and it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top.

The Springbok second row combination of Eben Etzebeth and Franco Mostert is among the very best in world rugby. This ought to be an outstanding battle between two evenly matched and talented teams. If both teams commit to playing expansive rugby it could be a treat for the rugby connoisseur.

IRELAND’S AUTUMN INTERNATIONAL FIXTURES
Saturday 11th November
Ireland v South Africa
Aviva Stadium, Dublin 5:30pm

Saturday 18th November
Ireland v Fiji
Aviva Stadium, Dublin 5:30pm

Saturday 25th November
Ireland v Argentina
Aviva Stadium, Dublin 5:30pm


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