The 2019 Rugby World Cup is finally underway and before too long, it will be Ireland’s turn to get their campaign up and running. It will hardly be the gentlest of introductions to this global gathering of the sport’s greatest exponents, though, and the fact that Joe Schmidt’s men have to face Six Nations rivals Scotland first up tomorrow has shaped everything that has gone before this summer.
It is in stark contrast to the pool draw four years ago which allowed Schmidt to gather momentum in-tournament in England and Wales, starting with Canada and building momentum through further victories over Romania and Italy to give the perfect lead-in to the key fixture against France.
Four years on and Ireland have to hit the ground running, pure and simple. Scotland are the main rivals, followed by Japan six days later, and only once those fixtures have been successfully negotiated will Ireland be able to take a deep breath, with Russia and Samoa the remaining pool opponents.
“We probably arrived a little bit underdone last time and tried to get an upswing through the pool so there was almost a natural progression, and I felt that we got there,” Schmidt recalled yesterday as he announced his first World Cup matchday squad since the painful 2015 quarter-final loss to Argentina.
“Unfortunately there was some collateral damage on the way through that made it very difficult beyond that but this time we definitely have to hit the ground running, this is the equivalent of the French game last time but we’ve got it first up.
“Therefore we’ve tried to taper and periodise our upswing a little bit earlier and hopefully there’s been a little bit of evidence that it’s starting to come and we’d love that to be the case.”
Ireland certainly come into this tournament on an upswing, you would not dare to imagine otherwise given their crushing 57-15 defeat by England on August 24, just two games into a four-game warm-up schedule.
Away and home wins over Wales have steadied the ship, the conditioning is starting to bring sharpness rather than the heavy legs and minds so ruthlessly exposed by the English at Twickenham.
There is a discernible buzz around this squad as they go about their business here in Yokohama and one can detect that confidence is brimming, however much Schmidt is inclined to speak of nervousness.
“It’s just so different (to 2015) because we didn’t start with the same level of match, and that’s no disrespect to Canada, but they weren’t as well known to us and they weren’t in Tier One,” the head coach said.
“We’ve got a big Tier One opponent and the players know each other really well and I think that closeness makes us a little bit nervous, and them a little bit nervous no doubt as well.
“Last time was my first time coaching in a World Cup so I was obviously nervous but we started with Canada and Romania. It’s a bit of a different start going Scotland and then six days later to the host nation, so there’s a little bit more anxiety around this game than there was last time and I felt last time that we were in pretty good shape. There’s a similarity in Robbie (Henshaw) picking up a bit of a hamstring twinge but apart from that, the team is quite different. It’s a little bit younger mostly and I think that there’s some really positive enthusiasm there.”
Scotland undoubtedly pose a real threat to Ireland’s hopes of that fast start. Their back three of Hogg, Maitland, and Seymour has posed real problems in the past and in Finn Russell at fly-half they have a playmaker with an exciting box of tricks at their disposal.
Yet aside from the 2017 Six Nations when Ireland got off to an awful start at Murrayfield, fought their way back and then threw it away all over again, they have pretty much had Scotland’s measure.
Ireland have the experience, talent, and knowhow to prove that once more at Yokohama’s International Stadium tomorrow, even, Schmidt believes, if they do get off to that dreaded slow start that afflicted them in this year’s Six Nations at home to England and in the final-round visit to champions-elect Wales.
“It wouldn’t necessarily be habitual for us,” Schmidt insisted. “We’ve come out and started really well in games with a very similar team. There’s a really good example in 2017. In the first game of the Six Nations, we started very, very slow. We were 21-5 down against Scotland at half-time, so we know we can’t afford that sort of incredibly slow start.
“We’ve got to try and get on the front foot from the start and I guess for us that’s built up through the warm-up, through the preparation this week and I think our preparation has been good.
“So you start to see it build and you get a sense of readiness about what those first two, three, five, 10 minutes are going to be like. But there’s always an element of unpredictability about those early minutes as well.
“So, yes we will focus on how well we start, yes we will want to get a good start and we’ll try and put a few things in place that will help us do that. But it’s not something you can guarantee. Therefore you’ve got to be able to adapt and get yourself back into the game.
“I think when we played the All Blacks last November they had a barrage of attacks inside our 22 right at the start of the match. We saw that off and then worked our way back down and got into the game.
“So if we don’t start well, I don’t think we can get distracted or too worried about that. We’ve just got to get ourselves going forward and thinking forward; not distracted by anything that has gone before if it doesn’t go too well from the start, which can happen in a big game because there’s that degree of anxiety and there’s that odd-shaped ball that we play with.”