It was Samoa who provided the opposition for Joe Schmidt’s introduction to Test rugby as Ireland’s head coach, way back when in November 2013.
The New Zealander and this team may have seen a lot of water under the bridge together since then and there is not much left to run before their boss departs the scene but you get a sense from Ireland’s demeanour this week that the Pacific Islanders will not be allowed to add another bookend to Schmidt’s nearly seven-year tenure.
After the trials and tribulations of the middle section of this Pool A campaign in Japan, the Irish camp is determined not to let today’s game be their final involvement at this World Cup. Defeat to the host nation in game two may have been the boon this tournament needed on its first visit to Asia but it was seriously detrimental to Ireland’s challenge.
Having arrived in Tokyo as the number one side in the world and hit the ground running with a bonus-point win over Scotland, Schmidt’s men were derailed six days later by a thrilling Brave Blossoms performance in Shizuoka.
The subsequent 35-0 victory over Russia was anything but thrilling, though, more function than finesse and the upshot is that Ireland now require another maximum-point return against the Samoans to ensure they reach the quarter-finals next weekend.
Win well or go home, potentially, is the gist. A try bonus point in victory will mean this squad can relax a short while tomorrow at their Fukuoka base and not have to worry about what is happening in typhoon-hammered Yokohama, where Scotland will go head-to-head with the Japanese in a do-or-die game, post-Hagibis safety concerns permitting.
What Ireland do against Samoa can take themselves out of any qualification equation 24 hours later and above any mudslinging as World Rugby tries to avoid legal threats from the Scots and rescue a messy situation of their own making having cancelled rather than postponed today’s New Zealand versus Italy game when the Azzurri still had a mathematical chance of reaching the knockout stages.
Those are issues that can be swerved and Ireland really has no excuses but to go out and claim those four tries on the way to a resounding win. That is not to underestimate Samoa — how could we after Japan’s upset victory a fortnight ago?
Jamie Joseph’s side exposed Ireland’s frailties as Japan executed a well-hatched plan to knock Ireland out of their rhythm with two-man tackling teams and exploit defensive weaknesses on the edges. This is a different threat but it would be too easy to dismiss it as a purely physical one.
Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek yesterday said as much and referenced his All Blacks’ debut against the Samoans in 1999. Feek said:
One of the things you want to be talking about is the physicality of the Samoans and that’s just an underlying part of rugby. If you want to win games, you need to be physical and that’s something they bring
“But Chris Vui and Jack Lam are really smart rugby players too. That’s one thing I remember back then. Pat Lam (Jack’s cousin) was actually playing in that game. Those are the things that make these things really interesting.
They’ve been training together for a while now and you saw Fiji pull out a cracker against Wales. The longer teams spend together the better they get.”
Ireland, Feek added: “Know what’s coming and we just have to prepare for that. When I was lucky enough to play against them a couple of years ago, they were like that then.”
The Wales-Fiji game in midweek is not the only example of Pacific Islands side gelling as the tournament has progressed. Tonga were within minutes of defeating France and the Samoans almost turned the tables on Japan last weekend.
Yet Ireland, having been victims of a compressed schedule with a six-day turnaround from Scotland to Japan and only five days from the Japanese to Russia, have finally caught a break with a nine-day lead-in to this game. The problems from those two games were quickly identified, their players made the most of a weekend off to rest, recover and recharge and by all accounts have torn into training since returning to work last Monday.
The Irish have had two extra days’ preparation than Samoa and Schmidt believes the extended build-up to today’s game will serve his team well. It has to, or the men in blue will be the footnote as well the prologue to his Ireland reign.
There are only two survivors from the XV he selected back in November 2013, Rory Best and Conor Murray, who helped the former Leinster boss to a 40-9 victory on his Test debut.
A similar scoreline would be welcome but not necessary for as challenging as Samoa will be in Fukuoka today, Ireland have the bit between their teeth once again and a final fence to clear that is well within their range.
Thoughts of the quarter-finals must wait, as must whether it is the All Blacks or the Springboks who will be waiting for them. Sunday will decide that. It is all about today that really matters for Ireland.