DONAL LENIHAN: Ireland winning the phoney war but real dangers down the line

A strange few days in many ways. New Zealand beaten for only the third time since lifting the 2011 World Cup, confirming you shouldn’t write off the Wallabies approaching next month’s global showpiece tournament.

Of even greater significance for Ireland, a young and ever-improving Argentina side whipped perennial bully boys South Africa in their own backyard in Durban.

The reward for Ireland topping Pool D in the forthcoming World Cup is that we, more than likely, avoid the reigning champions in favour of the Pumas for a quarter-final date in Cardiff. That astonishing result in Kings Park has served to highlight the fact that securing that elusive semi-final slot will be far from straightforward.

The fact that 74,000 people turned up at the Millennium Stadium to watch a Welsh team made up largely of second and third choice players on the second weekend in August served to highlight the hype surrounding Warren Gatland’s multi-layered approach to the RWC.

It felt strange to be there at the business end of the GAA season but there is a certain symmetry in the fact that Ireland launched their World Cup preparations against the side that left our semi-final dreams in tatters last time out.

Wales, the only side to beat Ireland in last season’s Six Nations championship, remain an irritable itch. Their win over Ireland in that quarter-final in Wellington four years ago endures as a major scar on the players still doing battle in the current squad. Saturday’s comprehensive win will have done nothing to erase that. Given the feeble nature of the Welsh resistance, it’s clear that the vast majority of their players are still in gym mode and short on rugby savvy.

The fact that I ended up looking to slake my thirst for a competitive sporting contest — the All-Ireland football quarter final between Mayo and Donegal — in a variety of Cardiff hostelries, adding further to the surreal nature of the weekend.

Believe me, trying to persuade a Welsh barman to sacrifice coverage of the opening day of the English Premiership for a sport that few in the bar had any clue about failed miserably. On this evidence, Sky Sports have a way to go to win over a new audience for the GAA in the UK.

A season that is set to last a full 12 months for Ireland’s frontline players got off to a really impressive start at the Millennium Stadium with a performance that bore all the hallmarks of Joe Schmidt’s tenure in charge. Given that most of the players hadn’t seen game time for nearly three months, the cohesion, understanding and clinical execution displayed by the Irish players in their individual and collective roles bodes well for what’s coming down the line.

By way of contrast, it is clear that while the Welsh management were testing the physical and mental extremities of their players in those much-publicised training camps in Qatar and Switzerland over the last few weeks, their patent lack of rugby preparation left them ill-equipped to cope with the slickness of what Ireland produced.

When the two coaches discuss in advance the composition of their respective teams, as Schmidt and Gatland did in the days prior to last weekend’s clash, you begin to appreciate that, despite the soundbites to the contrary, there is an element of a phoney war going on in these warm-up clashes.

That said, the fact that Ireland all but humiliated Wales on their home patch will ensure that the return fixture at the Aviva Stadium in a few weeks will carry a bit more bite and intensity. That will do Ireland no harm at all as the opening World Cup contests against Canada and Romania are unlikely to offer any appreciable benefit for the more serious contests down the line.

Like Wales, England also chose to travel abroad with a lengthy period of altitude training in Denver, Colorado. It will be interesting to see just how prepared they are from a rugby perspective when they meet France in Twickenham this weekend. With France holding the key to our World Cup ambitions, that game will be watched with interest by all in Camp Ireland.

The problem for the northern hemisphere sides heading into a World Cup is that they are playing catch-up when compared to the massively intensive battles that take place in the Rugby Championship in July and August. Australia’s superb win in Sydney last Saturday proved that emphatically.

Rugby on this side of the world has been put on hold since the end of May while the southern hemisphere’s finest are engaged in domestic and international contests of the highest quality. That, of course, presents a different challenge as their management teams are faced with attempting to keep their troops in peak shape after an exhausting schedule of high-profile games and long-distance travel.

South Africa, who for the first time ever failed to win a single game in the Rugby Championship, are decimated with injuries to key players at present with the likes of Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Duane Vermeulen, Francois Louw, Jannie du Plessis and Willem Alberts all in a race to be fit in time for the World Cup.

In addition, their incredibly unfortunate captain Jean de Villiers who, having made a miraculous recovery after tearing three of his four knee ligaments against Wales last November, made it back to start a test for the first time on Saturday only to break his jaw. He too faces a race against time.

Ireland winning the phoney war but real dangers down the line

Injury is the one thing that haunts all players in the weeks before the tournament gets under way and for the Irish, seeing a clearly distressed Tommy O’Donnell being removed from the action on a motorised stretcher after suffering a dislocated hip will to nothing to ease those fears.

His World Cup dream has already been shattered.

With the likelihood that Schmidt will resist the temptation to unveil his strongest side until the preparatory tests against Wales and England, chances are we will see another mix and match of combinations when the team to face Scotland next Saturday is announced tomorrow.

Last weekend’s sequence of results has elevated Ireland to an unprecedented high of second in the World Rugby rankings so, from a global perspective, our World Cup credentials have been well flagged. Coping with that is just one of many challenges facing everyone in the Irish set up over the next two months.

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