Call it what you will, and as far as Joe Schmidt is concerned it is most definitely not a warm-up, but Ireland’s clash with England at Twickenham today represents a significant moment on the road to this fast-approaching World Cup.
That this is a game to put right the mistakes made in previous performances against Scotland and Wales is hardly unique, but given the nature of this match and the strength of the opposition, head coach Schmidt will require his frontliners to take a great leap forwards from last week’s outing against the Welsh.
This is the final run before the tournament gets under way against Canada in Cardiff on September 19 and given the schedule of games that follow, the last true top-tier Test before the meatier Pool D games with Italy and France in early October.
Ireland will be facing a full-strength English side with wrongs to atone for themselves after a poor performance against the French in Paris last weekend and their forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who watched a pretty dismal lineout effort from his pack in addition to a disciplinary meltdown at the tackle area, suggested yesterday this clash with the Six Nations champions of the last two seasons had long been in their sights as the moment to hit the ground running.
“We’re at home, we’ll be the first to say our last two performances have not been our best and we want to put that right first and foremost.
“We’re at Twickenham and it’s World Cup month. I said to the lads on Tuesday, ‘it’s September, new month’ because August was tough for us on many fronts, physically, mentally, particularly last week. But it’s a new month, a new start, a World Cup month and this is the first game of our World Cup.”
The same surely applies to the Irish and Schmidt will field his strongest team yet of a summer which has seen the men in green start with a bang in Cardiff for the first 50 minutes and then appear less convincing back at the Aviva with a hard-earned win over Scotland and defeat to Wales.
There are seven changes to the side which misfired in Dublin last weekend, losing 16-10 and conceding 15 penalties in the process. Only the inclusion of Simon Zebo at full-back points to a form of experimentation, regular incumbent Rob Kearney nursing a bruised knee but still a member of the travelling squad, as is Cian Healy, the first-choice loosehead prop who has been kept out of harm’s way for another week as he continues to complete his return from neck surgery three months ago.
And regardless of the outcome, Schmidt needs to see a squad moving a good distance in the right direction.
“These players are too competitive not to want to get the result,” he said. “But if we didn’t get the result, but there were a few building blocks we’ve put in place and a few things we did maybe a little bit better than last week, we’d come away feeling there’s work to be done but we’re keen to get working again and build our way through the World Cup. We’ve got to hit the ground running against Canada but we’ve got to build game to game because I don’t think anyone’s kidding themselves the games... obviously the game at the end of the pool (against France on October 11) is going to be tougher based on where they’re ranked and what they’ve done in preparation for this World Cup, and what they’ve done in previous World Cups.
“It’s ironic that people are calling it a warm-up game for the World Cup. I don’t think you ever go to Twickenham for a warm-up game,” Schmidt added. “I think it’s very much a hot-bed from the start. I’ve no doubt that they’re looking to rebound as we will be.
“We felt probably a little bit unlucky last week and lot of what we did put us in good field position to probably do a little bit better than what we did. We’ve just got to make sure that we finish a few things this week. But there’s no tougher team to break down defensively than the English.
“They are very, very good defensively. They put a lot of pressure on you when you have the ball. They slow the ruck well and once a ruck is slowed, they get so many numbers on their feet that they’re kinda charging at you.
“You might have the ball, but they have the momentum. It does make it a pretty tough day, so we’re going to have to be really accurate around the break-down and they have a number of threats around the break-down as well.”
This then is an England team to give Schmidt’s men a thorough examination. The onus is on Ireland to answer the challenge, lay down their marker and give themselves lift-off.
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