Ireland can board today’s flight to Japan with a spring in their step

Ireland can board today’s flight to Japan with a spring in their step

It was one of those moments requiring a sharp intake of breath. The dreaded prospect of injury hangs large over these World Cup warm-up games.

They are a necessary evil, matches to be endured rather than enjoyed, especially for the management.

Despite seeing Ireland’s leading World Cup try scorer, Keith Earls, leave the field with what Joe Schmidt described as a “whack to his quad”, the coach had every reason to feel good about how a potentially damaging assignment against a strong Welsh side worked out at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

With just over 11 days to go before Ireland’s crucial Pool A opener against Scotland, a welcome degree of positivity has returned to the Ireland camp.

Meanwhile, over in Edinburgh, Schmidt’s Scottish counterpart Gregor Townsend was surveying the carnage surrounding his squad after their bruising battle against Georgia on Friday night before that pivotal meeting with Ireland in Tokyo.

A litany of injuries incorporating a serious concussion to second row Ben Toolis,hamstring strains for his fellow lock Jonny Gray and recently capped New Zealander Blade Thompson, a facial injury for Jamie Richie along with a head injury assessment for Blair Kinghorn served to put a severe damper on Townsend’s celebrations.

That’s the challenge with these pre-tournament matches. Players from this side of the world are dreadfully short of game time heading into the biggest spectacle of their lives in comparison to their southern hemisphere counterparts and are playing catch- up in terms of battle hardness. Getting the balance right in preparation between being physically fit, strong and sharp, along with being “rugby ready”, as Warren Gatland calls it, remains the biggest challenge for our coaches.

Despite that thrashing at Twickenham, with three wins from the four contests played, Ireland have emerged in pretty decent shape.

That return looks encouraging, considering Declan Kidney’s squad lost all four warm-up games in 2011, along with the blow of losing David Wallace to a serious knee injury on the last day of action, a defeat to England in Dublin. Yet, Ireland went on to top their pool in a World Cup for the first time in New Zealand.

Four years ago, Schmidt’s side lost two of their four games but also progressed to top their pool.

As a result, and despite attaining that utterly meaningless tag of the number one ranked side in the game for the first time in our rugby history, these warm-ups offer no real guarantee of what might transpire at the tournament itself.

That said, I think it was really important that Ireland won last weekend. Even more pleasing that they performed so well, especially in the second half, and finished the game strongly. In terms of timing, the manner of this win could not have been better.

With the boarding passes already issued for their departure today, the players could finally begin to look forward with confidence to the adventure about to unfold over the next seven weeks.

Forget the win at the Principality Stadium 10 days ago. The reference point for Ireland going into last Saturday’s return match was the 25-7 defeat to the same opposition on the day Gatland’s men secured the Grand Slam in Cardiff last March.

Wales bullied Ireland that day, won the big collisions and stopped them from generating any momentum. That had to be addressed.

Gatland never likes losing, even more so when it’s against Ireland. To do so twice in a week in the final phase of his Welsh tenure will have annoyed him even more. He thrives when he is the one lobbing the verbal hand grenades and, having closely followed the fall out from Twickenham, could hardly contain himself.

His many achievements in the game since the IRFU prematurely cut the cord at the embryonic stage of his coaching career back in 2002 is something he takes massive pride in when he comes face to face with the green blazers in Dublin.

He is never found wanting when it comes to twisting the knife and his declaration prior to last weekend’s outing in Cardiff that the Irish coaches don’t know what their best team is was typical.

“Some of their players are getting a bit older — is it time to put some of the youngsters in?”

He was at it again, despite that second defeat on the bounce, immediately after Saturday’s match.

“Ireland went back to what they are traditionally good at, playing off No 9. When they play a certain way, you have to be collision dominant in that area and your discipline has to be good.”

The fact that Ireland imposed so much pressure in that second half, the penalty count was 10-1 against Wales.

Ireland’s stuttering performances this year have only served to convince Schmidt even more that he needs to refine the things we do well and not try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to broadening the scope of Ireland’s attack.

More than ever at this level, the game has become all about winning the big collisions.

Power in contact is key and Schmidt appears set to follow that template by selecting Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki, who excelled as a pairing last Saturday, in midfield at the expense of the more elusive Garry Ringrose.

Up front, the meaty Jean Kleyn is also being teed up to start in the second row despite his lack of exposure to international rugby.

The selection of the back row is also open to speculation and I suspect that it will now be a case of horses for courses when playing against differing styles, something we will explore in greater depth in the build-up to that key opening pool game against the Scots.

Right now, the Irish squad is in a good place. Saturday’s result has created a feelgood factor within the group and afforded the opportunity for them to relax and enjoy themselves on Saturday night after all the hard work that has been put in since early June.

It also contributed towards setting the tone for a fitting send-off for a magnificent servant to Irish rugby in captain Rory Best on his withdrawal from the action on 53 minutes.

Despite the suspicion that, at 37, he might be asking too much of his body to still compete against the bruising athletes that now populate international rugby, Best remains a key figure in this squad.

His standing ovation when leaving the field was hugely deserved.

Schmidt too, deserved to finish his reign at the Aviva Stadium on a high by putting one over a great nemesis in Gatland.

They may be fellow Kiwis but Gatland has never been slow to fire a few shots across the bow of one of his successors in the Irish job.

Who knows but they may yet get to cross swords once more in their current roles in a few weeks time.

Given the prospect of that happening would mean both had guided their respective charges to the semi-final of the World Cup at the very least, I suspect they would grasp that outcome with relish as they set off on their travels this week.

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