Ireland step back into the lion’s den today as they revisit a sold-out Millennium Stadium for the second time in five months, with a closed roof not the only difference between then and now.
Back in March, Joe Schmidt’s team arrived in Cardiff with a Grand Slam in their sights and left shaking their heads in bewilderment after Wales summoned an heroic defensive effort that crushed those hopes of glory.
A Six Nations title would come the following week in Murrayfield and now there are different priorities for both sides five weeks out from the 2015 World Cup.
Two very different line-ups are being sent into this contest, with Wales head coach Warren Gatland fielding four debutants in a side captained for the first time by centre Scott Williams. Schmidt, meanwhile, offers no new caps, merely the massive opportunity to stake a claim to one of those 31 precious seats on the plane back to Cardiff next month for the Pool D campaign which begins under the same roof against Canada on September 19.
Ireland’s extended squad of 46 has been in camp for five weeks already, got all their physical conditioning nailed down and Schmidt and his coaching staff have enjoyed extended time with players to whom access in most pre-seasons is limited to a weekend get-together.
Yet this, in the words of Schmidt this week, is the first litmus test, the opening salvo of a campaign of four warm-up matches in which he hopes to first narrow down his squad to tournament size, then fine tune a team to conquer their pool and ultimately chase previously uncharted World Cup success. You can sense the optimism coursing through this group of players and coaches as they stand on the brink of the final run-in.
“I wouldn’t say it’s crept up on us but it’s all on now and the anticipation of getting to this point is reached, we’re pretty excited about what’s ahead of use,” defence coach Les Kiss said yesterday after Ireland’s captain’s run at the Millennium Stadium.
“Overall it’s been great to have this window, just to prepare with the group, and the tougher decisions are down the track, as you all know. But at this stage we’re all very excited.” Today’s captain in the absence of Paul O’Connell is Jamie Heaslip, no stranger to the role or the situation of World Cup leading-in periods having failed to make the cut in Eddie O’Sullivan’s 2007 squad and then passed the test four years later under Declan Kidney to make the plane for New Zealand.
No.8 Heaslip will win his 73rd Ireland cap today to surpass David Wallace as his country’s most capped back row and will be his side’s most experienced player, tasked with sending out his team in just the right frame of mind for a Test that has consequences far beyond a so-called friendly in high summer.
“You can break down your goals in different ways,” Heaslip said. “It can be like stuff you want to hit in the gym, the amount of games you want to play, some guys want to set it like that. But for this phase some guys have probably set a goal of going to the World Cup.
“But to peel it back and come back to what Kissy was talking about, the essence of all that, that’s a great goal; but to get your first step on the ladder to getting there is what’s going to be presented to you tomorrow, and you’ve had to take another couple of steps during the week or the last couple of weeks to get your game knowledge up, to know exactly what you have to do and just fall into that.
“Because that kind of gives you reassurance, gives you confidence. You already know that you’ve done the work physically. You already know that in your first game, no matter what, you’re going to be blowing hard. So when you’re tired, you fall back on what you know, you fall back on your habits and those good habits that you formed during the week is what’s going to see you through.
“So I keep going on to lads about practising good habits, knowing their detail in and out, so you don’t have to think about it, so that it’s automatic and you don’t have to waste energy on that. That’s been the message in terms of helping yourself as an individual towards your goals and towards the team goal which is going out there and trying to win in Wales’ back garden.”
Simple really. The fun starts here.
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