There’s a reason that some fans would dispense with the pre-Rugby World Cup warm-up games and it’s not just because they’re afraid of injuries (although that’s an understandable fear). It’s because they often just don’t mean much.
Coaches use them as a way to finalise selection, hone partnerships, and strengthen depth but, ideally, a team targeting the world cup trophy itself would have largely settled those things long before August. And Ireland won World Rugby’s 2018 Team of the Year, Player of the Year, and Coach of the Year awards, after a Grand Slam, a series win away in Australia, and an autumn clean sweep that included a ferocious statement win over New Zealand. They are a team that should be targeting the trophy.
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So these games should really be an excuse to give Irish fans a chance to see their favourite players and try out a few potential bolters. But 2019 has been a very different year for Ireland than 2018 and the warm-up games suddenly seem more significant.
Italy, for all they have improved under Conor O’Shea, haven’t managed to improve at a faster rate than the other Tier 1 teams and, as such, shouldn’t threaten Ireland’s chance of an actual victory.
But a win would not be enough for Joe Schmidt’s men at this point.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 25, 2018
So what are Ireland looking for in their first warm-up game?
The key players are in place, honed over the months of 2018. Most of the fringe players who are competing for spots have been in enough camps and matches before to know Schmidt’s way of working – and for him to know theirs. Ultan Dillane and Rory Scannell have already been cut from the squad and it is likely there will be further reductions after the Italy game.
But the lesson of the 2015 warm-ups for Ireland was the importance of strengthening the squad’s experience. To that end, Rob Herring gets a rare start at hooker and the uncapped but highly-rated Jean Kleyn gets his first chance in the engine room. Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy take the 7 and 8 jerseys, respectively, fighting to emerge from a strong group of back-row options that also include Jack Conan, Peter O’Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, CJ Stander, and Josh van der Flier.
Moving back, Luke McGrath and Joey Carbery start in the halfback positions. The two are familiar with each other from Carbery’s Leinster days but Schmidt will want both to be more comfortable bossing the international side.
Chris Farrell is also being given the chance to demonstrate his versatility, taking the 12 jersey after turning out at 13 in his previous five games. Jordan Lamour gets a fourth start at 15, having also covered the wing and outside centre from the bench in the past. Schmidt will no doubt be looking at the attacking and defensive decision-making of both players in this game, especially once Matteo Minozzi gets onto the pitch. Andrew Conway and Dave Kearney are the final fringe players to get a start.
Not all these players will make the final 31-man squad but they may well be required later on in the tournament. If Ireland are to finally make it past the quarter-finals, their fringe players will need to be ready.
Get back up and running
First of all, they need to regain their mojo and a vulnerable looking Italy should be the perfect opponents for that. An unconvincing performance, like the one produced by the second-string side in the Six Nations, will not cut it here. It’s a strong enough team that Schmidt has lined up and, while there are a certain amount of cobwebs to be swept away, Ireland should be hitting their straps long before the end.
Beating Italy won’t erase the memory of the beating they took at the hands of England or Wales but it will get them back on track before they get a chance to take on those two teams in the third and fourth warm-up matches.
Captain Rory Best has acknowledged as much, saying, “It is about making sure that we produce performances” and that, “It’s important that we treat each of these games as a Test match and we really fire into them”.
Ireland need a bit of belief in themselves, their systems, and their skills. A comprehensive win will go a long way, even over a team currently ranked fourteenth in the world.
Half-backs back on track
Central to Ireland’s difficulties in 2019 was the poor form of their first-choice half-back pairing. At their best, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have repeatedly shown they can take on anyone, including New Zealand – for both Ireland and the Lions. They have not been at their best this year.
Murray missed the 2018 autumn internationals with an injury and couldn’t seem to regain his form on his return. Sexton has shown flashes of his old self for Leinster, in the Pro14 and Europe, but didn’t impress for Ireland during the Six Nations.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) August 9, 2019
Both surely remain first choice for Schmidt but they will need to start showing they are still the imperious performers of 2018.
In the meantime, their deputies get the chance to impress. Carbery, who’s running game and long passing ability also make him an excellent candidate at 15, has yet to fully convince on the international stage so needs to take his chance. Jack Carty waits in the wings after an impressive season at Connacht and Ross Byrne remains in the squad, having done most of the legwork towards Leinster’s Pro14 title last season.
Kieron Marmion has shown he can make the step up, fitting in comfortably in the win over New Zealand last autumn, so he stays on the bench here and McGrath gets the first chance. Both will be hoping to keep out John Cooney, who can cover both 9 and 10, with their performances.
A big game from the Irish half-backs against Italy would settle a lot of nerves about the form of their first choice pairing.
Developing a Plan B
Ireland’s Plan A is relentless and, when it works, almost impossible to stop. Their ability over the ball, their extraordinary discipline, their physicality, and their clever plays, all calmly martialled by Sexton, make them almost unstoppable.
But when a team has found a way to combat that, as England did, they struggle to switch to a Plan B. And, in their defence, trusting their primary approach has gone very well for them, even when it seemed like it couldn’t possibly come off – that extraordinary 41 phases before Sexton’s drop goal against France in 2018 springs to mind.
Since the loss to England and their subsequent travails, a Plan B has seemed more necessary. Moreover, the heat and humidity of Japan during this world cup might make that possession-based Plan A difficult to execute for seven games in a row.
A back-up plan that allows them to make the most of the attacking talents at their disposal – Larmour, Garry Ringrose, and Carbery can all sparkle in this team, given the chance – should ease the pressure going into the Rugby World Cup and improve their confidence.
Schmidt’s defensive demands are rigorous but he may need to allow some of his talented young backs a little more leeway in these warm-ups where results matter less than the big picture and there is time to work out the defensive kinks. Giving Ringrose and Larmour the chance to play first receiver at times could catch teams off-guard and would give Sexton or Carbery chance to use their vision directing the next waves of attack.
The warm-up games might not always be the most exciting but Schmidt’s men have plenty to play for.
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