Joe Schmidt’s aim will be to keep alarm bells quiet ahead of World Cup

Ireland’s warm-up matches don’t always offer clear indicator of performance

Prior to the World Cup four years ago, Ireland would have traded four warm-up defeats for four wins in the pool stages, and that is exactly what transpired. The same is true again this time around. Warm-up games are mere footnotes in history.

Even so, Irish rugby has taken the concept of bad dress rehearsals for World Cups to extremes, and until four years ago has consistently bucked the old adage that they foretell good opening nights.

In truth, Ireland have never really managed their warm-up schedules effectively. This dates back to the inaugural 1987 World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in May of that year, when the IRFU and Irish management made the decision to rest the Irish front-liners from all club activity for the last few months of the season to keep them fresh.

Fresh equalled cold.

By contrast, as the then Welsh captain Clive Rowlands recently noted, the Welsh players played around 50 games each that season, as their over-crowded club programme pitted them with two matches on Wednesdays and Saturdays most weeks.

“Of course, 50 games was too much rugby,” said Rowlands, “and we did play too many games back then, but for that inaugural tournament it was probably the best preparation because nobody else was used to it.”

It certainly proved effective against Ireland in the countries' pivotal pool opener in Wellington, when a Mark Ring try, two drop goals by Jonathan Davies and a Paul Thorburn penalty out-pointed two penalties by Michael Kiernan, as a precursor to Ireland losing by 33-15 to Australia in the quarter-finals.

Despite being routed 49-6 by New Zealand in the semi-finals, technically Wales went on to have their best ever World Cup, thanks to a 22-21 win over a deflated Australia in the third place play-off.

In 1991 the IRFU had the bright idea of taking a 26-man squad under Ciaran Fitzgerald for a two-Test tour to Namibia, and while Ireland won two midweek matches against Namibia B, they contrived to suffer the ignominy of losing both Tests.

Eventual winners

Admittedly, this was not necessarily an indicator of World Cup form. A pool defeat against Scotland in Murrayfield condemned Ireland to another quarter-final defeat to eventual winners Australia, this time by 19-18 at Lansdowne Road, courtesy of Michael Lynagh’s 76th-minute try.

Ireland reverted to not playing any warm-up matches between the 1995 Five Nations and the World Cup in South Africa, which kicked off at the end of May with a 43-19 defeat to New Zealand at Ellis Park and finished with another quarter-final defeat, this time to France, by 36-12 in Durban.

Four years later, after a two-Test, four-match tour to Australia, Ireland's sole warm-up game was a 32-24 win over Argentina at Lansdowne Road, so initiating a run of 14 meetings between the two countries since that day. But Los Pumas kept their powder dry, springing two-try scrumhalf Agustin Pichot, Martin Scelzo and Ignacio Corleto from the bench – all of whom would start in their famous 28-24 play-off quarter-final win over Ireland in Lens.

After a three-Test tour to Australia, Tonga and Samoa in 2003 (front-liners were excused duty from the islands after the Perth defeat), Ireland prepared for the 2003 World Cup with handsome wins over Wales, Italy and Scotland.

This was a precursor to beating Argentina 16-15 in Adelaide before losing 17-16 to Australia in Melbourne, where they remained for a 43-21 quarter-final defeat to France a week later.

Warning signs

The warning signs toward Ireland’s most anti-climactic World Cup campaign of all, four years later, were all too evident in the warm-up games. Ireland had rested their 15 front-liners who had started the 43-13 win over England the previous February from the two-Test tour to Argentina (both losses) and, after a 31-21 defeat to Scotland, hastily arranged a risky fixture against Bayonne during a week of warm-weather training in the south-west of France.

With a 28-year-old Wayne Barnes struggling to impose any control on a wild night in the Stade Jean Dauger, Brian O'Driscoll suffered a fractured sinus courtesy of a punch from their Kiwi lock Mikaera Tewhata in what became known as the Battle of Bayonne.

Ireland finished their preparatory games with a lucky 23-20 win over Italy in Ravenhill thanks to a dubious late try by Ronan O'Gara – Alessandro Troncon had to be restrained by team-mates as he sought to remonstrate with Nigel Owens.

There followed the undistinguished win over Namibia along with the narrow and ultimately desperate win over Georgia in Bordeaux, and the 25-3 and 30-15 beatings by France and Argentina which confirmed Ireland’s sole pool exit thus far.

Cue to four years ago, when Ireland had their most extensive warm-up itinerary to date, with Tests against Scotland, France (twice) and England, as well as a game against Connacht. Declan Kidney chopped and changed, using 43 players in the five games, as Ireland lost all four Tests.

Cue more alarm bells, although it transpired that they were just fooling us. Ireland won a World Cup pool for the first time in seven attempts, the highlight being a 15-6 win over Australia in Eden Park – a first win over a Tri Nations side in the southern hemisphere since 1979 – as well as routing Italy 36-6 in Dunedin.

Alas, as the Blarney Army swelled in numbers and in optimism, giddy expectations were deflated by a superior Welsh side in the Wellington quarter-final, when Ireland were beaten 22-10.

And so to Wales this Saturday.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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