Ireland’s stuttering form and the losses they posted in their last two outings may have curbed the enthusiasm levels, but Joe Schmidt will be entitled a discreet smile and maybe a sigh of relief when the door of the plane taking them to over the Irish Sea swings shut tomorrow.
Sitting with him will be 31 players, none of whom will be carrying anything approximating to a serious injury. Any Band Aids that travel will be stowed in the hold. All systems are go. In that sense, it is about as ideal a starting point as the Ireland coach could have wished for.
Yet, rugby is a contact sport. The players featuring in this year’s Rugby World Cup will be fitter, stronger and more explosive than ever before. Injuries are inevitable and Schmidt and his coaching colleagues will likely have to dip deep into their playing pool before their return.
The Kiwi has worked assiduously to strengthen that base in his two years in charge, and with considerable success, but the impression remains that there are some among his squad who are simply irreplaceable if Ireland are to breach the last eight line for the first time.
Mike Ross’ vital importance to the scrum is unquestioned, Paul O’Connell’s talismanic leadership-by-example obvious. Add in Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton and you have a quartet of faces whose absence would greatly imperil the cause.
Even if Rory Best doesn’t see it as so cut and dried. “Every squad has key guys and you sort of think you can’t cope without them until you have to cope without them.
“You look at four years ago and New Zealand when they lost (Dan) Carter and (Richie) McCaw and everyone said ‘oh they’re going to be in big trouble’.
“The pressure just swings on to someone else and, when you have a lot of quality in the squad like we feel we have, we have players who can cope with it, rise and maybe play 10% above what you think they can.
“Which gets them closer to your so-called star players.”
He would say that, of course.
Best is a safe pair of hands off the pitch as well as on. He is routinely presented to the media at the start of November or Six Nations campaigns to set the public tone.
An engaging speaker with a pleasant demeanour, he pressed all the right buttons again yesterday. With no injury news or recent game to talk of, he answered questions yesterday about his optimum weight, the official balls being used for the tournament and Usain Bolt.
There is little or nothing left to speak about at this point aside from the past and lessons learned. As a member of the squad that fell so flat so unexpectedly in 2007, and someone who was more to the fore four years ago for the mixed bag that was the 2011 campaign, he knows something about what it takes to succeed at a World Cup. Few coaches tick as many of the right boxes as Schmidt, but not all preparations are within his remit. Among the intangibles is that marked ‘momentum’, something Ireland failed to gather under Eddie O’Sullivan in France in the opening games against Namibia and Georgia.
Canada this Saturday is an opportunity they simply cannot let pass.
“Ultimately, you have to try and generate momentum somewhere and we need a result this weekend. There is no doubt about it, if you don’t get a result this weekend there’s massive pressure on you going into the next three games.
“There are certain areas of the game in the summer that we know we need to get better. The big focus for us is to improve those areas and that we start to build the performances. We said before the summer Tests that we wanted to win them. We expect to win every time we put on an Irish jersey.
“We know that you don’t win anything in the summer, but you definitely put yourself in a good position to win something.
“Probably the difference between four years ago and eight years ago was when we lost those games we tried to learn from that, to move on and use it during the World Cup.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved