Ninety-five minutes. That is all the time Ireland have had this week to prepare to face France in Paris tomorrow as they bid to get their 2016 Six Nations campaign up and running and win back-to-back in the French capital for the first time in 88 years.
Coaches never feel they have enough time with their players but the run-in to tomorrow’s Stade de France clash has been disrupted to say the least. A six-day turnaround between games is nothing new, such are the demands of today’s broadcast schedulers. Yet the bruising, physical 16-16 opening draw with Wales in Dublin last Sunday has pushed Ireland even further out of sync.
No wonder head coach Joe Schmidt felt this week was as difficult as the lead-in to October’s injury-hit World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. Condensing a normal seven-day training week into six is tough, particularly when your opposition has an extra 24 hours recovery, having played their championship opener, a 23-21 home win over Italy, last Saturday.
Factoring in the travel Ireland had to undertake yesterday afternoon, when they flew from Dublin to Paris, as the French stayed put at their Marcoussis base, adds to the inconvenience.
Yet the mechanics of getting the players on the training ground at Carton House have been fraught with difficulty this week due to the brutal nature of last Sunday’s collision. Four backs — Johnny Sexton, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo, and Keith Earls — who started that game at Aviva Stadium had to sit out Tuesday’s session, the first of the week, while Rob Kearney, working his way back from a hamstring strain, took part in only limited running work.
Those who were fit and able were put through just a 32-minute session while yesterday’s training ran to 62 minutes, with more players reintroduced to the mix.
There were still sufficient question-marks over the fitness and readiness of a number of them to cause Schmidt to delay a decision on his matchday squad until right up to the IRFU’s appointed hour to announce names to the media.
The upshot was that Zebo (knee) and Earls (concussion) were forced out of the 23 the head coach named, the latter having had insufficient time to complete his head injury return to play protocols, again due to the short turnaround.
Those who did clamber aboard the plane bound for a Valentine’s weekend in Paris, which will allow for an extra light training session at the stadium today, included three changes to last weekend’s starting line-up.
Sean O’Brien, fully recovered from his hamstring tightness felt in training last week, returns to the No 7 jersey, pushing the unfortunate Tommy O’Donnell onto the bench, while Rob Kearney replaces Zebo at full-back and Dave Kearney comes onto to the left wing for Earls.
The changes impact the bench further, with Richardt Strauss replacing Sean Cronin as cover at hooker, Eoin Reddan in for last week’s unused scrum-half Kieran Marmion, and Fergus McFadden named as the outside back replacement, just minutes after being named in the Leinster squad to face Zebre tonight.
“I don’t want to encourage negativity but it’s probably as difficult, in some ways, as Argentina,” Schmidt said, “because we had Johnny [Sexton] come out of the team very late in the piece, we had a lot of changes and people stepping in.
“I know that Fergus McFadden was named on the bench for Leinster today, we’ve just flogged him off them. I don’t even know that Leo [Cullen, Leinster head coach] knows yet, but he’s probably seen this team and I’ve got a phone call waiting for me on my phone.
“Again, it just doesn’t help to be as well-prepared as you’d like to be, but you could not fault the work ethic of the lads in the last week. They’ve worked incredibly hard and I know they’ll do the same this week. We just need to be as organised as we can be to make sure that that is as waterproof as we can make it.”
Disruptive it may be but there is one significant difference from Schmidt’s experience this week and what he went through last October. The final pool game win over France had seen him lose captain Paul O’Connell, fly-half Sexton, and flanker Peter O’Mahony to injury while O’Brien would be suspended for a punch on Pascal Papé.
The loss of experience in terms of caps from that game to the starting XV which faced Argentina seven days later was in three figures. Four months later, Schmidt has welcomed back frontliners in O’Brien and Rob Kearney and the experience of his starting XV has increased by 27 caps to 535.
That is not to undermine Schmidt’s argument. He has still had a complicated build-up to this Test and the suggestion he might be able to develop Ireland’s gameplan further over the last five days was met with barely concealed incredulity.
“Developing a style with a 32- and a 63-minute training, in the end you are just trying to get people organised. At kick-off we will stand here because they kick there or there, at lineout they attack here or here, they use these lineout options, lets cover those. At scrum-time this is what they do at scrum.
“By the time you split that time 20 minutes of that was done in units of that 32, so we had 12 minutes together as a team [on Tuesday]. Twenty-five minutes of today was done in the units making sure that the scrum and the lineout were well-prepared. You are very limited, so to talk about creating a style or developing a style, it can be a little bit of a moot point, particularly in a week like this where you have got new personnel coming in.”
Not a weekend to expect grand designs then, rather a game to see Ireland roll up their sleeves, suck up the frustration, and just get on with it.
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