More like the real deal as Ireland and Wales reshuffle their hands for farewell
Johnny Sexton returns on landmark day for captain Rory Best and manager Joe Schmidt
Garry Ringrose at the Ireland Rugby Captain’s Run in the Aviva Stadium on Friday. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Rugby World Cup warm-up: Ireland v Wales
Venue: Aviva Stadium. Kick-off: 2pm. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 1.30pm. On TV: Live on RTÉ 2 and Channel 4.
The squads have been finalised, the World Cup is a fortnight away, and Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland have reshuffled their hands. Accordingly, this landmark day also feels like more of a real deal. Such is his stature and presence that Johnny Sexton’s seasonal reappearance alone almost ensures that; likewise the Welsh totem, Alun Wyn Jones.
Squad places secured, now the player are auditioning for key World Cup roles. This game features 15 of the match-day squads from Wales’s 25-7 Grand Slam coronation last March.
There’s no doubt that after that defeat, and a second beating by England this year, Ireland could do with a restorative win, thus ensuring a fond send-off from what is virtually a sold-out Aviva Stadium for what will be a final home game for Rory Best and Joe Schmidt.
Were it to come with a solid day in the set-pieces for the skipper, and especially the Irish lineout in the fallout from Devin Toner’s omission, all the better.
Throw in, so to speak, a continued improvement in Ireland’s line speed and tackle execution, a safe return to action for Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls, and signs of the Irish phased attack penetrating the famed Welsh defence, all the better again.
Yet it’s still a warm-up. Ireland’s opening pool game in two weeks against Scotland is inestimably more important, while any quarter-final would be a different stratosphere. Ditto Wales when encountering Australia and Fiji in their second and third matches. Hence a one-score loss and no injuries is preferable to a one-score win with casualties.
I think the best way to protect yourself is to be fully committed to the game
That being said, there will be no holding back.
“I think you have to fully commit to this game,” ventured Schmidt, “first and foremost, because there is always a risk that if you are half-pied at all, if you are trying to look after yourself for the flight over, you don’t get the flight because you are half a yard slow and you are slightly vulnerable somewhere.
“I think the best way to protect yourself is to be fully committed to the game and I think the players are driving that message amongst themselves and, hopefully, we’ll see evidence of that. If we can get a good performance and show we’ve slowly built through the last three weeks, having freshened up a little bit, starting to enter that phase of tapering to perform, I’d like to think that we can get our timing right and it should be apparent in the performances.”
Yet again, as an aside, the number one world ranking is up for grabs. Ireland, now second, can climb to the top for first time if they win, while Wales, now fourth, can bounce all the way back to the summit if they win by more than 15 points.
Wales have a team – and specifically a bench featuring Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar and Liam Williams – equipped to close out a game. It would also be no surprise if Schmidt and co remove Sexton and other frontliners before that endgame.
Last week, Gatland was denied a winning home farewell and, as in 2015, it could be that Wales will again win the return meeting in Dublin and similarly deny Schmidt and Best.
Best admits he didn’t enjoy last season’s procession of farewells: to the Six Nations, to the Kingspan Stadium and then to Ulster.
“I actually said to my wife afterwards, ‘I can’t cope with this. This is not something I like doing.’ That’s why subconsciously I haven’t given it much thought, or allowed myself give it much thought, because this is about performing and a bigger picture.”
Part of him also admits he’ll enjoy going back as a supporter, as he recalls doing at the 1991 World Cup quarter-final when aged nine and seeing Gordon Hamilton’s try bring a semi-final into view until Michael Lynagh’s try closed the door.
“I remember sitting in the old West Stand when Gordon Hamilton scored in the corner. I was with my dad and my dad’s uncle. We had to stand on the old wooden, rickety seats just to see down into the corner. I remember the entire row just flipped and broke but no one gave a sh** because Gordon Hamilton had just scored.
We have created some wonderful memories on the pitch, which I never thought I would
“There are all those little bits and pieces. To be honest, at the start, I used to go down mainly because we stopped at Monasterboice for steak on the way home.
“I did enjoy my rugby but I liked to watch it on TV and then go out and play a bit in the garden, come back and watch a bit more, go out and play a bit. When you went to Lansdowne Road, you didn’t get the option to go out and play, but there is no doubt that the incentive of the steak got me down.
“Look, when you are down there with your family, you get hooked. I suppose we have been going down as a family since I was four or five. There have been some wonderful memories there and then we have created some wonderful memories on the pitch, which I never thought I would.”
This will be Best’s 58th and last home game with Ireland, and that his own kids are old enough to see him play this last while has been more special.
“I suppose that’s one of the decisions you make when you have kids a wee bit younger. That’s what you want for them. By hook or by crook, I hung around long enough so that they could remember it.”
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Jordan Larmour (St Mary’s College/Leinster); Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Jonathan Sexton (St Marys College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster, capt) Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Jean Kleyn (Munster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster), Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster).
Replacements: Sean Cronin (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster), Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster), Iain Henderson (Queens University/Ulster), Rhys Ruddock (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster), Jack Carty (Buccaneers/Connacht), Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster).
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); George North (Ospreys), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Josh Adams (Cardiff Blues); Rhys Patchell (Scarlets), Tomos Williams (Cardiff Blues); Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Elliot Dee (Dragons), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Dragons).
Replacements: Ken Owen (Scarlets), Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues), Adam Beard (Ospreys), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints), Liam Williams (Saracens).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).
Overall head-to-head: Played 128, Wales 69 wins, Ireland 52 wins, Draws 7.
Five-game formguide: Wales _ 18-11 v Scotland (a), 25-7 v Ireland (h), 19-33 v England (a), 13-6 v England (h), 17-22 v Ireland (h). Ireland _ 26-16 v France (h), 7-25 v Wales (a), 29-10 v Italy (h), 15-57 v England (a), 22-17 v Wales (a).
Betting (Paddy Power): 1/2 Ireland, 22/1 Draw, 17/10 Wales. Handicap odds (Wales +5pts) 10/11 Ireland, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Wales.
Forecast: Wales to win.