The opening act of Ireland’s World Cup Pool D campaign was brought to a neat conclusion in north London last night - now is the time to move into the meat of the drama.
Two bonus-point victories, 13 tries scored and 30 players gainfully employed in beating Canada and Romania on successive weekends, while serious group rivals Italy and France look far from polished articles. No wonder Romania boss Lynn Howells declared opposite number Joe Schmidt’s outfit as having all the ability to win the World Cup.
The plot is simmering nicely, then, with Italy next on the horizon as Ireland continue to build towards their final and most meaningful clash of the qualifying phase, that showdown with the French in Cardiff on October 11.
However unconvincing the Italians have looked to this point in losing to France and scraping past the Canadians, Schmidt knows they will represent another step up in class for his developing squad when they face the Azzurri at the Olympic Stadium next Sunday.
What he has seen from his players in the past two weeks has given Schmidt plenty of satisfaction as they have ticked their boxes and eased past tier-two teams when others of their status have struggled and laboured.
Now they will be asked to go a little harder, become more fluent and recognise that nothing will come as easily as these first two victories.
Welshman Howells, perhaps glowing from his native land’s win over England at Twickenham the night before and the successful post-match on-pitch marriage proposal by scrum-half Florian Surugiu to his fiancee, described Ireland as “pretty much a complete team” and predicted victory for them over France in two weeks.
Schmidt will not be so easily persuaded, at least not in public, nor to his players and this week as they train in Surrey he will remind them of that the key objective next weekend is the victory over Italy that will secure the quarter-final berth everyone expects of them as the bare minimum. What complicates the scenario, in his mind, is Italy’s need for a win over Ireland to stay alive in the tournament and the boost they will receive this morning by the return to training after injury of Italian inspiration Sergio Parisse, the back-row marvel who can lift his compatriots to greater heights just by his presence on the field.
“I do think he makes a massive difference,” Schmidt said last night. “I think it’s similar to a couple of players that make a similar difference for us. That will be a definite challenge for us.
“They’re a team who, effectively, their World Cup is over if they don’t win next weekend and that is always going to be a real challenge for us, particularly because they have some real quality amongst them.
“Across the board they present, on paper and on the pitch, a more formidable challenge than we’ve had so far and one of the risks is that having worked our way through two reasonably one-sided games there’s always a risk that, when the pressure comes on and we maybe haven’t been put in that position, I’m sure that’s what (Italy coach) Jacques Brunel is going to chat to his players about; to put us under that pressure and to see how we respond.” Schmidt’s men have done all that has been asked of them so far in this tournament, and yesterday’s matchday squad featured some excellent performances that will give the boss some selection headaches this week. Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe scored two tries apiece and were both sharp in attack and strong in defence, excellent in the air and on the ground while Simon Zebo showcased his creativity at full-back that make him a live contender for a role, starting or otherwise in a back three that remains the most intensively competitive unit in the Irish team.
Schmidt will also have been delighted by his front rowers as starting duo Mike Ross and Rory Best sat out yesterday’s game and watched their cohorts all lay down markers across the three positions.
It will make for a lively week of ‘pick me!’ as Ireland take over Harlequins’ training facility near Guildford and an equally interesting selection meeting come Thursday evening when Schmidt gathers his coaching staff and asks for their throughts. Selection, he admitted, had been thrown “up in the air” by the last two weeks’ performances.
“There is certainly no preordained game-plan,” he said of next week’s line-up. “One of the things we did challenge ourselves to do when we picked the squad of 31 was that we picked four teams that might play in the four games just so we made sure that if we got an injury in any of those places we could cover and that we could cover it within the squad.
“We have already broken that rule for the first two games so we are not going to stick to those teams either and the fact was that the five coaches picked four different teams, I don’t think anyone, maybe once or twice had the same team.
“It very much throws things up in the air and I can tell you that we’ll observe training on Tuesday and Wednesday, get together on Thursday night, make some decisions, finalise those decisions and train with that team on Friday to give them a bit of rhythm.”
Ireland are fizzing right now, and a Rugby World Cup record crowd of 89,267 at Wembley yesterday witnessed a team rising nicely to the boil, Romania affording them the opportunity, thankfully, to loosen the shackles and show us what is possible from this team in the right circumstances. Recreating those circumstances further down the line remains the challenge. The stage has been set.
S Zebo; T Bowe, J Payne (P Jackson, 58), D Cave, K Earls (R Kearney 48-56 & 58; C Murray, 64); I Madigan, E Reddan; C Healy (J McGrath, 54), R Strauss (S Cronin, 60), N White (T Furlong, ) D Ryan (P O’Connell, 64), D Toner; J Murphy, C Henry, J Heaslip (S O’Brien, 60).
C Fercu; A Apostol (F Ionita, 54), P Kinkinilau, C Gal, I Botezatu; M Wiringi (F Vlaicu, 68), V Calafeteanu (F Surugiu, 68); A Ursache (M Lazar, 68), A Radoi (O Turashvili, 58), P Ion (A Tarus, 54); V Poparlan, O Tonita; V Lucaci (J van Heerden, 60), M Macovei (S Burcea, 68), D Carpo.
Craig Joubert (South Africa)
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