Two days out from their all-Six Nations World Cup 2019 opening showdown, and the game is afoot.
The dissemination of official confirmation of the backline injury concerns for Ireland surrounding first-choice trio Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls, and Rob Kearney is tempered by reticence from head coach Joe Schmidt and the team management to show their hand until absolutely necessary.
Try telling that to Sunday’s opponents Scotland. While Ireland’s defence coach Andy Farrell did rule out Henshaw from the selection discussion yesterday, he declared Rob Kearney and Keith Earls good to go for selection pending Friday’s final heavy training session in Yokohama.
And over in Tokyo, the Scots were discussing the prospect of an alternative trio of talent, namely Garry Ringrose, Andrew Conway, and Jordan Larmour.
Ireland arrived in Japan’s second largest city yesterday having transferred 70 kilometres along the Tokyo Bay shoreline from their initial base camp in Chiba, and with them came doubts over the fitness of full-back Kearney, wing Earls, and centre Henshaw.
Henshaw’s hamstring injury sustained during the first training session in Chiba last Saturday was initially described as tightness, though the scan results that followed remain private and he will now be targeting the second Pool A game against Japan, a week on Saturday rather than this Sunday’s clash.
Kearney reported tightness in his calf following Monday’s session, while Earls arrived in Japan carrying a knock to his knee suffered in the final warm-up Test against Wales on September 7.
Both men were visible participants when Ireland allowed media cameras into training yesterday morning and Farrell said the squad’s fitness was “all good”.
“We’re pleased with how things have gone today. Rob and Keith Earls ran well and trained well. Joey’s been training well since Monday, so we’re in a good spot.
“They are available, so we’ve obviously another session to go on Friday. It’s Wednesday. The game’s on Sunday, so we’re building nicely.
“Everyone will be fit to train on Friday, so we’ll make our selection in the next couple of days. We’ve got a good squad, we’re happy with whatever we agree on and we turn out. Even if they weren’t fi, t we would be strong for the weekend.”
It appears the Scots are going with Ireland’s Plan B, judging by their full-back Stuart Hogg’s assessment of the Ireland number 15 jersey.
“Ireland have got some incredible players. If Rob Kearney is out and Andrew Conway is to come in, that is another world-class player we have to be fully aware of.
“Whatever team Ireland put out, we are going to have to match it and beat it. If they play their best team or some boys who haven’t got as much experience, it is still an incredibly huge challenge for us.
“We are just concentrating on ourselves and making sure we don’t beat ourselves and make too many silly errors. We might get five or six opportunities in the game to get some points on the board and we have to make the most of every single opportunity we are given.”
Of Henshaw, Scotland centre Peter Horne said: “Obviously he is a great player. Such a good defender and really good going forward. They lose one but Ringrose is awesome, such a smart attacker, great defender. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Back at the Ireland team hotel in Yokohama, Farrell said neither Earls nor Kearney would be risked“unnecessarily”, while he also praised the efforts in training of Conway and Larmour, adding:
“Like I said before the last Welsh game, when the squad’s narrowed down to 31, you start seeing the little units gelling together and everyone starts benefiting from that.
“And they’re certainly putting their best foot forward to contribute in all the areas of their expertise. Jordan’s a young man but where he’s come in the last couple of years is remarkable.
“They don’t see themselves as part of the squad, they see themselves as team members that are building for something special hopefully at the weekend.”
Regardless of the personnel involved, Farrell said he expected more to come from Ireland than has been seen during a less than stellar 2019 that has nevertheless seen them elevated to number one in the world rankings.
“We would expect quite a bit. We have been gearing up for this game. Our whole pre-season has obviously been building to certain parts to get different stages and bases of skill level and fitness etc.
“Our planning has been building up to a good start in this competition, so you would expect for us to hit the ground running.
“You know what our best performances have shown. We want to obviously build on that, get better within the competition. Is any performance perfect? You’ve heard it a million times and it never is, but being able to adapt to the pressures of how the game is unfolding is certainly key for us.
Calm, making good decisions along the way and in control of what we can be in control of, that’s certainly the key, and bringing that physical edge to our game as well, which is always part of a good performance.
It also requires defending with accuracy and awareness against an adventurous Scottish attack, with Farrell outlining the difficulties facing them as a defence coach.
“Understanding what that box of tricks is.
“Their attacking kicking game is really potent. They see the space whether it’s in behind or out wide, they’re not shy of throwing a long ball into that space and somebody picking it up on the run etc.
“They like to play at a high tempo. There will be something that we’ve not seen over the last couple of years, we’re sure of that, but if we get ahead of the game and our headspace is right throughout and we are next-moment focused, then I’m sure it will be a good contest, our defence against their attack.”