Ronan O'Gara: Do Ireland need Warren Gatland coming over the hill smelling blood?

Ronan O'Gara: Do Ireland need Warren Gatland coming over the hill smelling blood?
Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Jean Kleyn do some heavy lifting during lineout practice at Ireland training in Carton House. Picture: Billy Stickland.

Had a thought this morning. If Joe Schmidt was offered a pass on tomorrow’s final World Cup warm-up game against Warren Gatland’s Wales in Dublin, would he take it?

There’s an inordinate amount of chatter around this game, and a disproportionate level of importance attaching to it. It is a warm-up after all - but only in name now.

This is the final tune-up against robust opposition, and Wales are coming to inflict as much damage as they possibly can on Joe Schmidt’s World Cup.

So, given what’s gone before, given what we know – or don’t know – about the composition of the 31-man Irish squad, is a Warren Gatland-shaped problem coming over the horizon really what Ireland needs right now?

This is beautifully set up for Warren.

Wales have hit their straps at the right moment; their surge in form and confidence has been in 2019, not 2018 like Ireland.

That’s no guarantee they carry the feelgood through to the tournament itself, but Wales get Georgia before they face the key pool clash with the Wallabies.

Rhys Patchell has done for Gatty what every head coach hopes; make himself indispensable just at the right moment.

If only Joe had that right now with Ireland.

If Schmidt took that pass tomorrow, he might eliminate the potential for further misfortunes and negative energy, but he would be giving away the most informative 80minutes of his RWC preparations too.

The number of Irish front liners still well undercooked – to the point of raw – at this late stage is a concern.

Sexton, Earls, Henshaw, Ryan,Furlong etc. need game time and plenty of it. The most intriguing sub-plot to tomorrow’s game in Dublin is the minutes these aforementioned players are given set against the risk of a tweak or injury. It’s a fascinating game of physics v psychology.

We thrive on negativity in Ireland. I knew that before I left, and I see it all the clearer now that I am living away, because I was that person.

I was a glass-half-full player, but truly enriching experiences in New Zealand with the Crusaders has made me a glass-half-full type of coach and person.

Is this a challenging period for Joe Schmidt? Bet your life it is. There has been a few missteps and when results are not going well, such issues are magnified and develop into destabilising factors around the camp. I know what I am talking about.

2007 is being referenced a lot, but our fall from grace only began once the World Cup was underway in France.

Perhaps, and hopefully, Ireland are getting all the little creases out of the way early this time.

Any victory over Wales tomorrow would be pleasing. A defeat might not be the end of the world. But a creaming could be catastrophic.

Gatland knows that. He knows too that a number of Ireland’s key players are not up to the rhythm phase they should be. He saw some big names get thrown around like rag dolls at Twickenham.

Things happened that day I’ve never seen before to Irish players – whether they were in green or in their provincial colours. There’s no upside in naming them here.

We can assume that’s been done in some detail in the video sessions in camp.

As crazy as this sounds, I am more about the result tomorrow than the performance, which is a very uncoach-like thing to say.

These warm-ups should be more about the performance and that’s fine if we are talking about a team with a good supply of self-confidence. But confidence is low, even though they won’t recognise that publicly.

Here’s the upside of delivering tomorrow: Ireland turn Wales over, then we are right back in the game. And you carry that into the first game and defeat Scotland, all the rubbish can be dispelled and you are looking at a squad that can go to the far end of this tournament.

Johnathan Sexton during the Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Co. Kildare. Credit: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.
Johnathan Sexton during the Ireland Rugby Squad Training, Carton House, Co. Kildare. Credit: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

Our world ranking has been top five for most of the last RWC cycle. On current form, we would rate it a big achievement to make the semi-final, but the rankings indicate Ireland should make the last four. The point I would stress is that everything comes down to the game against Scotland on Sunday two weeks.

If Ireland win, they are away. They will have momentum – yes, Japan will be tricky - but Ireland will grind them down. In terms of the player’s mindset, the confidence thing is absolutely key.

Remember teams facing Ireland last year? There wasn’t a nation in the world would have fancied it.

The timing of our blip has been bad - Wales, England, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia realise Ireland have had a few bumps and they’re not showing, at the moment, they can handle it. That makes them less threatening, even in the eyes of the referees.

That aura is gone. I have to say that.

But you cannot write Ireland out of winning the World Cup, as some have done. If they win two key games, they have a great chance of going to the final – the Scotland game and the quarter-final.

At that stage all the pressure lifts from Schmidt’s players. They are in bonus territory, but not like your normal over-achieving underdog.

This is territory Ireland will thrive in. Steve Hansen likes reminding everyone how difficult it is to be No 1 and shot at all the time.

Dealing with that pressure is one thing – but the release Ireland would get from reaching a first semi-final could elevate them to something special.

And makes them very dangerous.

They will need a bit of luck in terms of keeping key players on the pitch. From an experience point of view in the key games, you cannot expect the same from a McGrath-Carbery combination as you would from a Murray-Sexton.

These things change so quickly and the hurlers on the ditch will gleefully climb back aboard the bandwagon if things get going. If they don’t get going, they will take a hammering.

Gregor Townsend’s final warm-up game this evening is against the Georgians in Edinburgh.

The composition of the side is very different to the full metal jacket Ireland will have on display against the Welsh. Finn Russell will be wrapped up in cotton wool now. He will thrive on the fast tracks in Japan but if Ireland transfer their preparation from previous Six Nations campaigns to a World Cup, they can dismantle Scotland quite easily. I genuinelybelieve that.

Half the country has had their tuppence worth on Devin Toner’s omission from the Ireland squad and you don’t need me ‘expressing surprise’. I don’t know enough about the calling structure to decide how big a miss he will be, but I’m reckoning Rory Best is disappointed. A hooker likes his bullseyes, and Toner is a big bullseye to be hitting.

In all the pre-squad chatter about bolters, I never envisaged Devin being one of the lads to get whacked.

It won’t be long now. The top-tier squads are all but settled. I still worry about Ireland’s key men having enough rugby by the time they get to Japan.

England look the form horse. George Ford’s game is right where it needs to be, which gives them Owen Farrell options, Tuilagi is world class, Vunipola is beyond interesting.

Kruis too, and the balance of their back row – if there were three big games in them over the course of a month, you could be looking at winners.

It is a big call by New Zealand to leave Owen Franks out, a massive call in fact. For a World Cup, you need a scrummaging tight head and I don’t think either Laulala or Ta’avao are in Owen’s league.

At 31, he may be slowing up around the pitch, but the capacity for a solid scrum is not something you can underplay in Cup rugby.


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