By Phil Rice
A reasonably satisfactory initial outing against Italy two weeks ago will be followed up by a much sterner test on Saturday (3pm) at Twickenham.
For the most part Joe Schmidt fielded a second-string Ireland team against Italy and came away pleased with a number of individual performers.
This week will see the Irish coach select a much stronger side against a quality England team.
This can be a worrying time for national coaches as they pray that none of their front-line players pick up injuries that would preclude them from taking part in the forthcoming Rugby World Cup (RWC).
Joey Carbery gave Schmidt a fright in the Italian game as he damaged his ankle.
#TeamOfUS @JacobStockdale & @tadhgfurlong on coping with the heat, scrum laws (well one of them talk about this), facing England & aiming for Japan. #ShoulderToShoulder #ENGvIRE pic.twitter.com/oZxBA1VUKj
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) August 20, 2019
Fortunately the experts have confirmed that he will only be sidelined for 4-6 weeks, and is likely to be available for selection for Ireland’s opening RWC match against Scotland.
Up until his injury, Carbery was one of the major pluses for Schmidt against Italy. He controlled the game with authority and the placement of his kicks was outstanding.
Kicking out of hand was one of his weaknesses when he began his Leinster career, but after considerable work on this area he appears to have turned it into a strength. No doubt Johnny Sexton has assisted him in this aspect of his game.
Carbery has made himself a genuine option to Sexton for the fly-half position.
While he has a higher risk element to his game, he does provide a greater cutting edge than Sexton and with the crowded defences of the modern international game, that can be crucial.
Certainly having that threat as back up on the bench is something Schmidt will value.
Others to impress against Italy were Andrew Conway, Rhys Ruddock and Chris Farrell. The latter of those showed that he has more subtlety than just his barnstorming runs, his deft pass for Carbery’s try was a good example.
Midfield is an area of strength for Ireland both defensively and in attack, and they will be tested to the full by England.
Schmidt is expected to name his trimmed down RWC 31-man squad after Saturday’s game.
He has some difficult choices to make. Is Jean Klein, with his extra weight and scrummaging power, more valuable than Tadhg Beirne with his uncanny ability to turnover opposition ball?
If he brings five half backs, should the balance be three scrum halves or three fly halves? Who will be the back-up hookers to Rory Best?
Last week, Schmidt bemoaned the limiting factor that a 31-man squad provides. There will be just five-day turnarounds at times during the World Cup and that is demanding with high pressure games.
For this weekend’s game the Irish coach is likely to field his strongest XV. The last thing he needs at this time is a mauling at the hands of England.
Squad update from Richie Murphy including the latest on @joeycarbery A number of players sat out the session today including @henshawrob , @JohnnySexton & @KEITHEARLS87 #ShoulderToShoulder #ENGvIRE pic.twitter.com/wnzT7KUSpo
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) August 20, 2019
The memory of the four-try drubbing Ireland received at England’s hands in the Six Nations is still fresh in the mind, and the damaging effect on moral was subsequently evident.
England are looking strong despite their defeat in Cardiff last weekend. In fact, Ireland are likely to face the backlash from Eddie Jones’ team after their loss to Wales.
England will undoubtedly be one of the favourites for the World Cup. Victory for Ireland would prove a great shot in the arm for Schmidt’s men, and even a closely fought defeat could be seen as progress since the Six Nations.
Injury avoidance will also be vital as the squad move into the final stages of preparation for Japan.
Ireland’s World Cup warm up Fixtures
Saturday 10th August
Ireland 29 v 10 Italy
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
Two more warm-up matches against Wales still need to be negotiated. Schmidt must be wondering about the wisdom of so many of these games.
Despite the strengthening of Ireland’s squad since the bitter experience of defeat at the hands of Argentina in 2015, Ireland still have a dependence on several key players.
England on the other hand have a much wider player base and with the exception of Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola they can absorb losses through injury much more comfortably than Ireland.
Schmidt is a firm believer in building a winning culture and will not take Saturday’s game lightly. It provides his team with an opportunity to build confidence with a quality performance against a strong England side.