Whatever degree of performance anxiety may have affected the Ireland team in Japan four years ago, there has been little visible sign of nerves this week in the Irish camp. The closer Saturday’s mighty World Cup Pool B collision with South Africa looms into view, the more Andy Farrell, Johnny Sexton et al exude an almost Zen-like calm.
Perhaps this comes with an Irish record of 15 wins in a row, and from having a side even more settled than the Springboks. The head coach has unveiled an anticipated starting XV, with Jamison Gibson-Park restored, meaning Ireland have made only two changes from the series-deciding win over the All Blacks in Wellington 14 months and 14 Tests ago.
Garry Ringrose, who’d suffered a head knock in the Second Test, and Ronan Kelleher, ruled out of the tour altogether, start instead of two players who are on the bench for this game, Robbie Henshaw and Dan Sheehan. The Leinster hooker has recovered from the foot injury he sustained in the warm-up victory over England and is thus in line for his World Cup debut. Such consistency in selection has to bring confidence.
”That is the feeling that we do get because of what we’ve been through and how we’ve trained and how we’ve prepared as well,” said Farrell. “There’s certainly a spring in the boys step this week.”
As the rain arrived, Farrell and Sexton were speaking after the squad completed their transfer from their base in Tours by TGV and coach to their hotel in Paris. Well, one says Paris, but like all squads based in cheaper hotels on the outer reaches of the French capital in World Rugby’s yellow-pack World Cup, the squad won’t be seeing the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre or any of the sights in the city centre. They may as well be in Milton Keynes.
But the match-week largely stays the same.
“It’s like every week,” said Farrell. “You prepare nice and early, review and learn the lessons and prepare for the next opposition. But at the same time, you get a sense of when the players own the plan and own the week, etc. It tends to be a little quicker than normal in weeks like this and that’s the case this week.”
South Africa have already bagged an 18-3 win over Scotland as well as a bonus-point victory over Romania, while Ireland have two bonus-point wins and a game against Scotland to come, so it is not a knock-out game. Yet given the many potential ramifications for winning, it’s hugely important psychologically.
“It’s not a must-win,” agreed Farrell. “It’s not a do-or-die type of game but it’s pretty important to both teams, let’s put it that way.”
In declaring their hand, including that 7-1 split on the bench designed to enhance the so-called Bomb Squad effect, Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber were no doubt happy to have sparked the week’s prematch narrative.
But the Irish team has to sidestep the Boks’ aura and stay true to themselves.
“That’s what top teams do,” said Farrell. “They’re able to compartmentalise what’s going on to the reality and the big show etc, and it’s something that we’ve got better at over the last couple of years. It’s for occasions like this and I’m sure our emotions will be tested but how we measure the game that’s in our faces is pretty important.”
To this end Farrell has retained faith in the tried-and-trusted 5-3 split on the bench. Inevitably, the Ireland head coach had to field a plethora of questions about the Springboks’ 7-1 split on the bench, and he batted them away skilfully.
“It’s great. It obviously suits them, they know their squad and so do we. I did pose the question to our forwards coaches; would we do a 7-1 split with seven backs and one forward, but they wouldn’t do it,” quipped Farrell.
“It shows exactly where they want to go with their game-plan. We’d be the same with some of the stuff that we do as well.”
Asked whether he had considered changing his customary 5-3 split, Farrell said: “No, not at all.”
Playing in his 14th World Cup match at his fourth World Cup, Johnny Sexton wasn’t inclined to over-hype this game, nor play down some of the big games in previous tournaments.
Asked whether this World Cup clash felt different, Sexton said: “Not really, no. The big games that spring to mind are France in Cardiff, Australia in Eden Park. We’ve had big pool games over the years. It doesn’t guarantee anything. If you win them, it doesn’t guarantee anything beyond them. It’s a huge game but they’re the big games that have stood out to me in previous ones.”
That said, Sexton sensed a heightened focus from the players compared with the last two pool games.
“You get a feeling the minute you step on to the pitch on Monday. We were still in recovery mode on Monday after Tonga but you do get a feeling among the group and among the leadership and it’s very exciting. Yeah, where else would you rather be? That’s what we’ve been saying to ourselves all week..”
Indeed, for all the sangfroid that Farrell and the players have exuded, there’s no escaping the heightened sense of excitement that has been generated by this long-awaited clash between the top two sides in the world rankings.
“Ah, it doesn’t get any better, does it?” admitted Farrell. “They’ll be relishing this game as much as we will be. Two good teams going at it and in form, and it will all be about who handles the pressure on the day the best.”
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Jack Crowley (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster).