Ireland v Canada
Tomorrow: Millennium Stadium,
Referee: Glen Jackson
TV: TV3, ITV
Bet: Ireland 1/200,
Canada 66/1, Draw 225/1
So much for the best laid plans.
After 10 weeks of pre-season and four preparatory Test matches, Joe Schmidt arrived in the Welsh capital for tomorrow’s World Cup campaign opener against Canada ready to name his strongest team possible as a statement of intent for his Pool D rivals to digest.
He almost made it. Unfortunately for Ireland, Robbie Henshaw has not, the centre forced to withdraw from Schmidt’s first World Cup selection due to hamstring stiffness, which the head coach doesn’t expect to be detrimental to his longer-term plans for the campaign.
Short-term, the loss of Henshaw is a right royal pain, not necessarily in the context of this opening encounter against tier-two opposition, but in the wider scheme of giving the Connacht star’s still fledging midfield partnership with Jared Payne further exposure.
Instead, Schmidt, who revealed his hand yesterday afternoon by picking 11 of the players who featured in last March’s RBS 6 Nations-clinching victory over Scotland at Murrayfield, will deploy Luke Fitzgerald in Henshaw’s inside centre position.
There were further significant decisions made with the promotion of Iain Henderson to the second row alongside captain Paul O’Connell at the expense of Devin Toner, while Tommy Bowe’s poor pre-season form has seen him lose his near-permanent residency on the right wing to the in-form Dave Kearney, with Keith Earls winning a start on the left wing as a reward for his pre-tournament performances.
There is also a welcome return to the matchday squad for loosehead prop Cian Healy, named on the bench for the first time since undergoing neck surgery in May.
Yet Schmidt conceded the loss of Henshaw at such a late hour had caused a glitch in his preparations for the first game of the tournament.
“Just coming so late, it is a disruption,” the Ireland boss said. “I think you all saw the progress Robbie made in the Six Nations and how valuable he became. I think you know that in the England game he showed elements of what he was capable of.
“He was involved in 37 tackles in the first two games (against Italy and France) and then he won that ball in the air (to score the only try) in the England game as well as breaking the line in a set play and getting through a lot of tackles as well.
“Then in the Welsh game he learned a lot, playing against the likes of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. They were the Lions midfield pairing. I mean, while there was an expectation for our guys to do well, I thought he and Jared did really well and I thought he was really good against Scotland. The sort of progress we were hoping would continue on a similar gradient.”
Henshaw had felt his hamstring tighten at the end of training on Tuesday and Schmidt emphasised standing him down was a precautionary measure.
“We got it scanned, there’s a little bit of blood there. He’s okay to walk and jog around, but he does feel that tightness when he’s accelerating and therefore it would be a real risk to push him ahead. We’d be quietly confident that he should be okay by next Sunday (week, against Romania).”
The consequence of the late withdrawal meant Fitzgerald has had little time to prepare but Schmidt insisted his former Leinster charge was more than equal to the task of facing a beefy and physical Canada midfield featuring Ciaran Hearn and Nick Blevins.
“He had already run in there a few times through the pre-World Cup Test matches, therefore he slotted in well. He is a player that I’ve had playing 12 in the past and have had confidence in.
“It’s ironic, because this time four years ago he was starting at 12 for Leinster. He’s had a fair bit of game-time, for me, at 12 and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him playing 12 or 13. He’s already played 13 for us in the pre-World Cup Test matches and we felt that he did pretty well there and has earned himself another opportunity.”
It may be a disruption for the coach but the loss of Henshaw should not alter the outcome of tomorrow’s game under the Millennium Stadium roof and it will certainly not effect the current buoyancy in the squad as they finally reach their objective after such a long time preparing for action.
“Yesterday coming over, we were like a bunch of guys going on a school tour,” captain O’Connell said as he contemplated his fourth and final World Cup.
“It was a very giddy flight and bus trip to the hotel here. Preparation has gone really well for the team and myself. I haven’t missed many training sessions, which is great.
“It’s nice to get here and get here in good shape as well, having played a good few games and having trained for whatever it is, 10 or 11 weeks.
“The excitement is massive, probably more than the first one because I know there’s no more to come.”
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