Ireland back to business with first warm-up match against Wales
World Cup hopefuls get opportunity to seize moment in front of capacity crowd
Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip in relaxed mood with head coach Joe Schmidt during the captain’s run at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
But even by the standards of World Cup warm-up matches, confronting Wales in front of a capacity 74,000 under the Millennium Stadium’s closed roof does rather give a new slant on the need to hit the ground running.
That applies for some more than others given that the primary purpose of this exercise will be to determine the credentials of a host of World Cup hopefuls. The result, although interlinked with performances, is irrelevant.
Wales have an even more dismal record in these preparatory games than Ireland (losing 62-5 in England at Twickenham on the first weekend of August in 2007 being the nadir). Yet in point of fact the outcome could have historical consequences for Ireland.
Victory here, regardless of how South Africa fare in their Rugby Championship match against Argentina today, would see Ireland claim second place for the first time since the world rugby rankings were introduced in October 2003. That would almost be too dizzying.
With the WRU selling tickets at £20 (€28.22), the capacity crowd will ensure a rare sense of occasion for one of these warm-up games.
“When that roof is closed and the crowd belting out the songs, it’s a pretty electric atmosphere,” said Jamie Heaslip after his captain’s run in the stadium yesterday, and admitted this may surprise some players.
Flip it around
“But I’d flip it around and go, ‘what a great stage to kick off the season and represent Ireland against such a good Welsh side in front of 80,000 very loud and passionate fans’.”
The potential for what Ireland could achieve over the next few months excites Heaslip, especially if they reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup. “You’ve got to have that inner belief that on your day anything can happen – absolutely anything. In a straight knockout competition, anything can happen, especially in rugby. It’s a game that has so many cogs and wheels and players of all sorts of different abilities and skills, it really makes for an exciting time. Yeah, there’s massive potential there, massive belief and massive excitement all around it.”
It all starts here, and by asking for the roof to be closed, not only is Joe Schmidt seeking to replicate conditions for Ireland’s World Cup pool games against Canada and France, he’s also exposing squad candidates to more of a white-hot intensity.
For sure, some might miss out, but more than anything this is an opportunity, not least for Donnacha Ryan, bidding to bridge a two-and-a-half-year gap, Tommy O’Donnell, Paddy Jackson and the entire back five. Hence, Heaslip’s advice to seize the moment. Having experienced missing out in 2007 and making the cut in 2011, he talks from experience. Today he eclipses David Wallace as Ireland’s most capped back-rower by winning his 73rd cap.
“I got told that and in a weird way I was a little bit gutted to be honest; because I hold Wally with particularly high regard, as a player and as a bloke, but as a backrow guy as well. I was a bit sad to be honest, that I passed out one of my idols, and especially in the last World Cup he was one of the guys that I unfortunately saw play his last international.
“I think Wally was probably one of the best, if not the best, back-row player I’ve ever played with or against, and probably the best who played for Ireland. He’s just awesome, absolutely – ball carrying, defence, work-rate, knowledge, the full package really. Bar his lineout ability! Maybe I can take him on that! But otherwise it was a bit bittersweet hearing that, to be honest.”
Wallace suffered a ruptured knee when planting his foot inside the touchline and taking a full-on hit from Manu Tuilagi in the final warm-up game against England four years ago. That remains a harrowing memory for Heaslip and all those involved that day. And, of course, there was Geordan Murphy’s broken leg in Murrayfield the day before the 2003 squad was announced.
Yet there can be no holding back, least of all between these two. Each has won three of the last eight Six Nations, and have shared six wins apiece in their last dozen meetings. A fiendishly difficult fixture to call at the best of times, the untried, unproven nature of the two selections makes this even truer this time. Ireland have marginally more experience (418 caps compared to 326), but Wales still have five Lions in their starting line-up.
The bookies make Wales one-point favourites – a nod to home advantage, which ought to be more pronounced for an August friendly than a Six Nations fixture.
Ironically in light of the roof being closed, Cardiff shone under sapphire blue skies yesterday, and more of the same is forecast today, with temperatures in the 20s (remember them?). Furthermore, the closed roof can make both the ball and the pitch slippier than normal – the effects of 74,000 people in one large room.
Throw in opening-day rustiness and nerves, not to mention a lack of familiarity along with fatigue, and the spectacle may not live up to the occasion. Even so, it should be interesting.