The Irish jersey hasn’t been a good place to be in 2013.
That’s about to change. There’s a nice edge to the new set up. An energy, a rawness.
Nervous energy is good in professional sport. There are seasoned internationals in camp this week, many of them starting tomorrow, who feel like they are winning their first cap. Who feel they have to produce that first-cap live-or-die performance that keeps them inside the tent, and not outside, for the Australia and All Black tests this autumn.
Joe Schmidt is bringing a level of scrutiny, of nuance and attention to detail, that is raising everyone’s smarts. This is a new start and dangerous as Samoa are — imagine what they’d be like with a couple of games under their belt? — I can’t see why Ireland won’t perform well enough to start Schmidt off with a commanding victory. It isn’t the strongest team Samoa coach Stephen Betham could have put out, but their selection shouldn’t be the issue tomorrow evening.
From a rugby point of view, it will be fascinating to examine the leetle details, as Trapattoni had it, that a fresh conductor brings to the table. I wouldn’t be burdened with any negative thoughts on the opening autumn international. They have clarity of what they will want to achieve on each play. You will see a slickly operating Ireland team tomorrow at Lansdowne Road. From what I’m hearing from the training camp, if players don’t perform against Samoa — certainly those not considered key front liners — they may find themselves riding the pine Saturday week.
Paddy Jackson may not play against Australia, so this is a huge opportunity for him against Samoa, even if my gut says that Fergus McFadden will be handed the kicking duties. It’s the perennial struggle for an international out-half who doesn’t kick — more latitude and less pressure to run the game or a kick the solar plexus? Jackson won’t like Schmidt’s call — if it be thus — but he may still get kicking responsibilities at some stage of the afternoon.
The coach knows McFadden well from Leinster and he may prefer to hand him the kicking tee in the first instance.
McFadden has an interesting style, a kind of snappy technique, but it’s accurate nonetheless. He practises hard, he doesn’t dip in and out of kicking and is very consistent in his performance. When he does routines, he is always with the kickers in Carton House, certainly as long as I can remember. It’s a nice reward for him too, to be one of the players given a major responsibility tomorrow.
I discussed the Sexton-Halfpenny kicking dynamic on the Lions tour before and there’s no question but that you take something from an out-half’s self-worth when he doesn’t kick the goals. It’s his raison d’etre you are messing with, but Paddy must think big picture here — he has a long career ahead and, all progressing at it should, he has plenty of time to take permanent ownership of the kicking tee.
Schmidt has selected a callow front five for international duty, four from Leinster though none of them with the experience that a Leo Cullen or Cian Healy brings to work. Therefore, the Paul O’Connell captaincy decision is a smart play for the 18-month run-in to the next World Cup in 2015. Paulie commands huge respect from his colleagues and the opposition. Not that Jamie doesn’t but Paulie has a bigger presence at this stage of his career. Let’s see where Jamie is at in two or three years. He’ll have a similar aura then.
Schmidt’s decision is merit-based. It has to be. At that level of sport, you do what you’ve got to do. If he felt Jamie, or Brian O’Driscoll, was a better option for the captaincy, he’d have gone with them. The coach is locked in on 2015, and evidently sees Paulie as being a key member of that Irish team at the World Cup.
He misses tomorrow and looks like he needs the confidence of two or three games in a row to be flying again. Paul’s body is more finely-tuned than some of the hefty behemoths he shares the scrum with, but he has plenty of time to get himself right for the Six Nations, in the first instance.
Johnny Sexton is another who is right to mind himself. He has a grade one tear in his hip flexor, but should be fine by Monday morning.
We’ve all had those little tears, it’s your body reminding you of a discomfort. If Australia was tomorrow, he could have played.
Given the pace of the last week, chances are I’ll be at a banquet somewhere in Hong Kong when Ireland kick off their season.
Racing Metro and Toulouse are out here testing the financial temperature and kick-starting the long countdown to the Japan World Cup in 2019.
It’s only an exhibition tomorrow between the two Top 14 clubs, but it’s been a demanding schedule in the build-up — training, function, training, function. We have no Wenceslas Lauret and Dimitri Szarzewski, Maxime Machenaud is still injured, and the likes of Dan Lydiate is with Wales. Other than those, and Sexton, we’re at full tilt.
Jamie Roberts, meanwhile, is still three or four weeks away from a game and though he is eager to play in one of Wales’ Autumn internationals, he will need to get a game in first with Racing.
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