Ireland supporters are about to discover whether their team’s trials and tribulations of the past few months will have been worth it when the World Cup squad gets put through its final paces before Japan at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow.
The last summer fixture is upon us with Wales visiting Dublin and after the ups and downs of 2019, book-ended by maulings from England in February and August, there is a sense that this is the first genuine opportunity to gauge where Joe Schmidt’s players are, just a fortnight out from their opening Pool A fixture against Scotland on September 22.
Both sides are close to full-strength, both squads now locked and loaded at the 31-player limit after respective announcements earlier this week and defence coach Andy Farrell believe Ireland are set to benefit from the changed circumstances.
Rory Best captains the side in his 120th Test and in his final home appearance before retiring after the World Cup, Jean Kleyn combines with James Ryan at lock for his third cap since qualifying for Ireland through residency rules while CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan form the back row.
There are also seasonal debuts in the backline for experienced frontline trio Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and wing Keith Earls.
Farrell, who will replace Schmidt as head coach at the conclusion of the World Cup in November, also believes the criticism raining down on the Irish camp since the August 24 hammering by a rampant English side at Twickenham can also serve to galvanise the squad.
It is a team to redress the balance of opinion after that bad day in London, to continue the steps in the right direction started with Saturday’s victory over the Welsh in Cardiff, and also an opportunity to lay down a marker, not just for selection against Scotland 15 days later but also for the tournament as a whole.
The outside noise is topped only by the level of honesty on the inside, Farrell insisted yesterday.
“Criticism is something that people have a right to with their own opinion but the criticism within the group is even stronger,” the assistant coach said.
“We think it’s unbelievably positive with each other, and I’ve never seen a more honest environment. It’s open and people are able to say what they think, and we’ve put a lot right in the last couple of weeks and hopefully, we’ll see that in our performance on Saturday.”
Only wing Jacob Stockdale, blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony and lock Iain Henderson are likely to prevent this weekend’s selection from reappearing against Scotland but Farrell insisted an open mind was being maintained.
O’Mahony’s absence from the back row after tough outings at number six in London and number seven in Cardiff, allows for a new combination with CJ Stander at blindside, Josh van der Flier at openside and Jack Conan at No.8. Combining the squad’s two No.8s in Conan and Stander brings more than just extra ballast, Farrell said.
“It gives us a bit of punch, a bit of grunt, of taking our game towards them on both sides of the ball, getting back to our best as far as our breakdown work is concerned. All three of them are pretty mobile and in very good nick, so we expect them to show that ability and that energy.”
So too the centre pairing, reuniting Aki and Henshaw for the first time this summer with Garry Ringrose providing outside backs cover from the bench as Ireland mix up their midfield approach for the fourth successive Test.
Schmidt started the Guinness Summer Series with Chris Farrell and Ringrose at 12 and 13 respectively, fielded Aki and Ringrose at Twickenham and then paired Aki on Farrell’s inside last Saturday at the Principality Stadium.
All four survived the final cut for Japan and Farrell believes they have horses for all courses in the chosen quartet rather than a pre-ordained first-choice pairing.
“We’re very fortunate in that we’re probably at a place where we’re unbelievably comfortable and happy whoever within those four that have been selected would play in those centre partnerships... that adds to the strength of our centre partnerships as a whole.
"The balance is pretty good as is the balance of the squad in general.”