Slowly, patiently, Joe Schmidt is moving his pieces into place for Ireland’s big push into the knockout stages of this World Cup.
While others all around this tournament are patching up their troops or resigning themselves to life without key components, the Ireland head coach is gradually getting his best matchday squad together, the outfit he believes can take his Six Nations champions past France next week and then with momentum into the quarter-finals and beyond.
A victory over Italy at the Olympic Stadium in London tomorrow will seal their place in the last eight and in naming his strongest possible side, Schmidt has finally got to deploy a previously missing link in his backline, inside centre Robbie Henshaw.
Forced to sit out the opening wins over Canada and Romania with a hamstring injury, Henshaw will make his World Cup debut in east London tomorrow. The only complaint for Schmidt is that he will be unable to partner the 22-year-old Connacht starlet in a Six Nations-winning combination with Jared Payne, the victim of a bruised foot suffered in last Sunday’s 44-10 Wembley win over the Romanians.
One in, one out, but Schmidt is as happy with his lot as he will allow himself to be and has the luxury of bringing a red-hot Keith Earls in off the wing to deputise for Payne at outside centre while installing an equally in-form Dave Kearney in the newly-created vacancy.
Dave Kearney on the fierce competition for places on the wing. Video by Dan Linehan.
The Earls-Henshaw partnership will be the head coach’s seventh different midfield in as many games since Ireland began its World Cup build-up in August and the latter’s first involvement since partnering Payne at Twickenham against England in pre-season. And it is Henshaw’s return that brought a smile to Schmidt’s face when asked what it was about the powerhouse in the number 12 jersey that he was looking forward to seeing.
“I think we’ve seen some quite good things from our midfield,” the head coach began. “I think they’ve been a real strength for us. Their distribution has allowed us to play along the edges, and I think we’ve played pretty expansively a lot of the time. But we’ve been able to mix up the way we play because they’ve also been able to square up and carry through the midfield effectively.
“Robbie does both those things really well. He did in the Six Nations. The other thing is that Robbie topped our tackle-count in the first two games of the Six Nations. For a kid who was in his first two Six Nations games he played, he was immense against Italy. By the time the first two games were up I think he had made well over 30 tackles, which, for a youngster, 21-year-old coming in to the big league (is incredible).
Schmidt on Payne and other Irish injuries. Video by Dan Linehan.
“He was probably in a number of the involvements that we created in a number of those Six Nations games. And, obviously, what was really visible was his confidence to call the kick (for the only try against England) from Conor (Murray). Because (England full-back Alex) Goode is very good in the air and he managed to get up and grab that.
“I think he’s excited to be back in there. I think his energy and effectiveness will be visible. But he might get a little bit tired as well. He hasn’t actually had a lot of game-time through the pre-World Cup period or for this game. The one thing about being young, is that he’s got fresh legs and enthusiasm and that will keep him going along with that good athletic capability that he has got.” Tomorrow will be the first step for Henshaw and another chance for Earls to continue his blistering form since his return from a series of injuries in January which led to his first cap in two years under Schmidt in pre-season, and which most recently saw him put in a two-try, man of the match performance on the wing against Romania.
“He’s a guy who I’ve been very keen to have involved in the squad for some time,” Schmidt said of Earls. “Having him in now is really enjoyable, he’s been great to work with; his enthusiasm and ability to take in information and then apply it has been first rate and I think he’s played often enough with Johnny (Sexton), with Tommy (Bowe) and with Simon (Zebo); less with Dave (Kearney) and Robbie, but there’s enough connective tissue in that backline that we do see a bit of cohesion.”
Sexton on missing out at Wembley. Video by Dan Linehan.
The connectivity between Earls and Henshaw could be crucial against an Italian midfield featuring Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro and Schmidt hopes the new pairing will produce some fireworks, however difficult that may prove against a team desperate to stay alive in the tournament, having already lost to France.
“Look, I’d love to see that. I just think that the game will be a little bit suffocating in the first 20, 30, potentially 40 minutes. And it may be that we struggle to get that little bit of space for them that they’d love to play into.
“It may take a while. One of the things I have noticed is that there are some games that are very close to half-time and in the end a team wears the other team down.
“It may end up being one of those sort of attritional affairs in the first 40. And then, hopefully, as the game accelerates through the last quarter you can maybe get away.
“It’s probably easier said than done when a team is fighting for their lives. They know that if they lose, that their tournament is pretty much over.”
Whichever way it takes, Schmidt will take the victory, no questions asked, and after seeing off a pair of tier-two teams, he feels his side is taking shape for the step up in challenge.
The World Cup starts here for Ireland and Henshaw and company and they should be nice and ready to do the business.
Shaun Cronin, head sports reporter at breakingnews.ie, speaking with Simon Lewis, golf and rugby correspondent with the Irish Examiner, about Ireland’s clash with Italy in the RWC. Video by Dan Linehan.
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