For all the trials and tribulations Joe Schmidt experienced in narrowing his World Cup squad down to the requisite 31, at least we have a good idea who will be in his starting XV.
The same cannot be said for his opposite number in the England camp.
Having kept his cards close to his chest right up until yesterday’s World Rugby deadline to submit the squads for the tournament starting 18 days from now, Schmidt will today make public his full deck. As a coach who lives and thinks forever in the present, however, his more pressing task will be to finalise the starting XV he sends into Twickenham this Saturday for Ireland’s final warm-up against competition hosts England.
After a less than impressive outing last Saturday against Wales, Ireland were dismissed by opposing coach Warren Gatland as not putting his side under any pressure, “apart from a couple of silly penalties” in a 16-10 win for the Welsh at the Aviva Stadium. “I don’t think Ireland played a lot of rugby,” added for good measure in a barb against his fellow New Zealander.
Schmidt initially dismissed that as a mere perception but later conceded his side had lacked width and that would play into his thinking for this weekend’s Test against an England side smarting after a sloppy defeat to France in Paris 10 days ago. Both the Irish and English were guilty of ill-discipline in those games and Schmidt will want to see a vast improvement from his players this weekend at Twickenham.
Yet Gatland’s criticism hit home on another facet of play Ireland will need to address and Schmidt said some changes in personnel will be made without detracting from the overriding need to build steadily towards the crunch games in Pool D when his side face Italy and France in early October.
“The starting XV won’t be the same as it was (against Wales), but I’d say there’ll be some consistency as well,” Schmidt said. “We need to get some cohesion, we were described as narrow and we probably were at times.We certainly ran out of width in our attack, although we could have scored twice in the opening 10 minutes with some pretty good width in our attack which obviously might have been overlooked.
“But, when you don’t convert those early opportunities and concede a penalty count of 6-0 (as Wales took a 10-0 lead inside 23 minutes), then you’re bound to come under pressure. We’ll try to balance those selections.”
England coach Stuart Lancaster named his World Cup squad last week but his preferred starting XV going into the so-called Pool of Death alongside Australia, Wales, Fiji and Uruguay is less than clear. Indeed, the indications are he will continue to experiment this weekend. Lancaster looks set to field a side for the last time before the hosts embark on a pressure-filled Pool A campaign with another all-new centre partnership and changes to his pack after a less than convincing outing at the breakdown in Paris.
With less than a fortnight before their opening match against Pacific Island champions Fiji, England will be starting Jonathan Joseph and Brad Barritt in midfield for the first time, the 13th centre combination of Lancaster’s tenure since replacing Martin Johnson ahead of the 2012 Six Nations.
In fairness it is the pairing Lancaster has wanted to try but been unable to do so owing to Barritt’s injury woes over the last season but it is hardly ideal starting them out together so close to a World Cup. Furthermore, having jettisoned experienced centres Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees from his 31-man squad, Lancaster needs this partnership to work given his other options are so inexperienced, with Henry Slade and Sam Burgess having had only one Test together in England’s home win over France in mid-August.
None of that will occupy Schmidt’s mind of course any more than concerns about rising expectations given last Saturday’s performance against the Welsh. Ireland’s summer form peaked in the opening 50 minutes of their first-pre-season Test at the start of August in Cardiff and has stuttered since in beating Scotland and losing narrowly to Wales last weekend.
Not that the coach is about to panic in his team selection for Twickenham.
“I’d say that we’re going to really be on our mettle going into the England game and, if we do keep a bit of consistency in our selection, then it will allow us a bit more of a stepping-stone.
“(It is) a balancing act. You have to get them game-ready, but at the same time you don’t want to risk someone. So, it’s a difficult conundrum.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved