Scotland may be the opposition as Ireland continue their World Cup preparations in this the second of four rehearsals, but the standout performances of so many of their colleagues in Cardiff last week will serve as just a useful barometer for many of those wearing green today.
So, like, no pressure guys.
Yet, if we have come to learn anything about Joe Schmidt’s Ireland it is the side’s consistent ability to hit their straps. They did so last November when all the talk was of the volume of players missing and most recently against Warren Gatland’s crew to kick off the countdown to The Big One.
The almost shambolic state of the Welsh last week stood in stark comparison to a smooth and slick Ireland which eschewed the need for the usual pre- and early-season excuses to do with rust, excessive gym time and lack of ball work.It was the ultimate expression of how Schmidt’s Ireland is about the collective and not the individuals and yet it is the latter matter that jumps to the fore here with 14 changes made and given the rush for places to make the final squad come August 31.
Twelve of Joe Schmidt’s latest 23 played no part in that impressive display in Cardiff seven days ago and at least two-thirds of those will suit up later this afternoon knowing that what they do here will play a central role in determining how they spend the early autumn.
That holds for Gordon D’Arcy who will earn his 82nd cap 16 years after his first every bit as much as it does for Jack Conan who will make his debut. And the likelihood is that Schmidt will look to filter far more of his front-liners into the fray in a fortnight’s time when Wales come to town. So, this is the Last Chance Saloon for some, though defence coach Les Kiss seemed to be speaking about the expectations on everybody when asked specifically about D’Arcy and what it is the veteran centre needs to do today alongside the loaded and locked Jared Payne.
“Darce knows how he works. He knows what he has to deliver. It hasn’t stopped him in any way being able to work with the younger guys and the group around him. He’s been contributing very strongly in that area, which reflects on the fact that he knows this is a team game. If he is to shine he has to be able to deliver in the systems and that wisdom, I think, will serve him well. That experience that he does bring, it’s only relevant if it’s not just for him and he’s wise enough to know that.”
D’Arcy and everyone else will be looking to Ian Madigan to navigate the side smoothly through the swells of a Scottish challenge that Schmidt, Kiss & Co. will hope is more on message than Wales a week ago or, indeed, than Scotland were themselves when losing 40-10 to Ireland last March.
It has been interesting this week to note Schmidt’s observations about the laxity of the Welsh challenge and Kiss was singing a similar tune yesterday when observing that a repeat of that defensive performance against a “switched on side” would cost them the game.
For Payne, this will be all about maintaining a steady pace. Everyone else in the back line will be looking to gain ground: whether it be Tommy Bowe in order to further his claim for a starting berth or D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald et al who simply need to book their flights.
The pack offers its own subplots with Dave Kilcoyne all too aware of the carrot in front of him given the ongoing concerns over Cian Healy’s fitness, Dan Tuohy at second row and even Conan who is surely playing to put down a marker for 2016 more than anything else.
Amid all the back-slapping after Cardiff, it is worth noting that Ireland fell away towards the end as replacements came and went: all of which means the second wave’s contribution will be examined more closely than ever here. In these scenarios, tackles in the 80th minute will merit as much reward or punishment as those made from the off as, though a second victory would be welcomed on the road to the World Cup, Kiss and Schmidt will be looking much further under the hood than that.
“It’s always good to have a win, it’s also good to have a performance,” said Kiss.
“ There were some aspects we were really pleased with (against Wales).
However, there is some areas we need to be better in. The results don’t guarantee anything next week and the week after.
“To write Wales off would be folly and to make us the world champions would be folly. We understand where we sit and we’ll let other teams look after themselves, but ultimately we’re backing what we have done.”
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