Ireland have enough to win if our main men turn up
Bare knuckle ride in prospect as crunch pool game against French likely to be attritional
Ireland rugby squad training in Newport, Wales. Coach Joe Schmidt believes game against France will be decided on tiniest of margins. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
This is it then. The World Cup has finally arrived for Ireland and France. From now on, things become altogether more serious. For the winners, a seven-day turnaround, and a quarter-final against Argentina, with a possible semi-final against Australia or Wales.
For the losers, a six-day turnaround before meeting holders New Zealand, with South Africa also in that half of the draw.
Recall too, that no country has ever won the World Cup after losing a match en route. Winning this one could therefore be kinda significant, and with a crammed Millennium Stadium under the closed roof, an estimated 8,000-15,000 French and conceivably everyone else in green, it could be a seismic game and occasion.
Taut and tightIt will also, most probably, be taut and tight, and as Joe Schmidt said on Friday, be decided by the tiniest of margins. It will also be brutally physically. Philippe Saint-André and his not-so-merry French marauders will insist on that, and there will be no escaping the physical battle. France will base their game on bullying Ireland physically, be it in the collisions, at scrum time, maul or with the battering ram that is Mathieu Bastareaud.
As Yoann Maestri said on Friday, the early moments will set the tone. “The first minutes will be crucial and it will be all about precision and commitment, but not going over the limits. We must identify the Irish leaders on the field and try to be better than them.”
The lines in the sand will be drawn early, and referred back to, in a battle of inches. A moment such as Anthony Foley meeting Fabien Pelous when he came around the corner after one of the first rucks in 2001, when France were intent on a similar physical bettering, could be huge. Step forward, perhaps, O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony or O’Brien.
Looking at the two sides, it would be no surprise if the ball sees plenty of air; indeed even the roof could be in danger. Schmidt said that Ireland don’t have to be smarter than
ImperilledNeither team will go out of the World Cup this weekend, even if their prospects could be seriously imperilled, and so it was that Schmidt had “half an eye” on Ireland’s quarter-final, be it against the All Blacks or Argentina.
Hence, as ever, his eye-catching selection made increasing sense as he explained it. Jared Payne, whose foot still showed selling after training on Wednesday, has thus not been risked. His defence is a recurring source of security for this team, but then again Keith Earls has never looked in better nick, and adds an attacking dynamic.
AttritionalNevertheless, it is due to the more attritional nature of the midfield exchanges that Luke Fitzgerald has been preferred to Simon Zebo on the bench, which is nonetheless tough on Zebo and reduces Ireland’s creativity off the bench.
The presence of Devin Toner ought to improve Ireland’s lineout and maul, with Cian Healy adding ball-carrying ballast in the absence of Iain Henderson until his impact arrival. Perhaps those positions rotate next weekend.
A feature of this World Cup is how clever coaches have contributed to huge wins , eg Japan over South Africa or Wales and Australia over England. Saint- André has delivered an uber-fit, settled and united team, but they appear comparatively more one-dimensional. But Ireland not alone have an edge in the cleverness of their coaching, and their minutely detailed preparation, but in their array of world-class players and high achievers. The backrow collision will be mighty but you’d still prefer Murray and Sexton, for example, to the French halves.
If Ireland’s main men don’t turn up, Ireland will lose. But if they do, they have enough about them to win. In that regard, it could also be that last week was a timely wake-up call.
From a long, long time ago, you always felt this pool and this game might come down to the 80th minute or even beyond. With Nigel Owens, for whom dramatic end games are not uncommon, that feeling is hardened. Hold on tight, this is liable to be a bare knuckle ride.