THERE are 80 minutes to restore the confidence levels in a squad that must be at its lowest level for quite some time.
After four years of painstaking planning and preparing, Joe Schmidt and his chosen few now have just one more dress rehearsal before they set sail for the land of the Rising Sun.
Earlier in the week, Schmidt uncloaked his 31-man squad and, for what it’s worth, my view on the exclusion of Devin Toner is that is nothing short of a scandal. Schmidt is entitled to pick whoever he feels is the correct fit for the type of game he is looking to deploy and, ultimately, he will live and die by the sword he wields. However, on this occasion his selection process is wrong on so many ethical fronts.
If nothing at all the Leinster goliath’s omission from the squad has given everyone a 6’ 10” stick to beat Schmidt with should this World Cup campaign go belly up. It sickens me to think that someone who devoted his entire life’s efforts to making Irish rugby a better entity is just cast aside like a piece of trash and my heart goes out to Toner and his family. I realise no one has died but try telling Toner.
I will always recall the time when training in the University of Limerick with the Irish squad when three new faces just appeared on the training pitch like the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes. They were Dylan O’Grady, David Erskine and Dion O Cuinneagain, the man who went on to captain Ireland in the 1999 World Cup.
All three just happened to be backrow players and I recall the late and great Anthony Foley, Victor Costello, Eddie Halvey and myself having many bitching sessions in our bedrooms over their inclusion. No one really knew who these guys were or who they even played for but what we did realise very quickly was that Brian Ashton, the worst Irish coach in history, had sought these players out by some ancestral association.
As individuals they were all good guys and good players, however, it just seemed wrong that someone could just rock up to an Irish training session and become eligible.
It is of the highest importance that Kleyn and players like CJ Stander and Bundee Aki are never personally vilified for getting picked because they are just doing their jobs and abiding by the regulations. The only people who should come in for scolding on this occasion are Joe Schmidt and his fellow coaches. I would also encourage World Rugby to sit down again and evaluate their rules around eligibility.
What happened here to Toner should act as a stark reminder to all professional players that your career is really nothing but one man’s assessment of your ability to perform and if this is how loyalty is rewarded, I’d encourage them to go and seek out the best financial contract they can agree. A rugby career is incredibly short and as far as I know, not one player has been able to retire on the monies he has earned from playing the game. Looks like Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan might have made the correct decision after all.
Ireland’s preparations for this World Cup have not exactly gone to plan and now have just one game remaining before they play their opening game against Scotland.
The game against Italy was always going to be insignificant What happened in Twickenham has shocked the rugby world and no matter what happens or what is said, this trouncing will have a big impact on the players mental preparations. Last week’s game in Cardiff wasn’t much more than a chance for Schmidt to give a few fringe players a stretch their legs and judging from the way the players imploded in the final twenty minutes, questions around their preparation were once again to the fore.
Barring one or two individuals, tomorrow’s 15 won’t be that far off from the side that will run out against the Scots in game one, and against the Welsh who could well be there or thereabouts on finals day, I couldn’t think of a better test to gauge just exactly where we are.
There can be zero excuses offered at the end of this game because it is just too close to the opener and I just hope that the likes of Johnny Sexton’s presence in the dressing room and on the field will inspire those around him. All eyes will be transfixed on the Leinster playmaker and this should allow his fellow players a bit of breathing space.
It will be very interesting to see how Wales go about this game and whether or not Warren Gatland decides to target Sexton for some extra attention. Sexton is now such a critical element in Ireland’s gameplan, you would be foolish to think that he wouldn’t be targeted.
Another area of Ireland’s play that must improve in their overall cohesiveness is the back row. If Ireland are going to have any hope whatsoever of competing come the knockout stages, it’s imperative that all three members have standout individual performances. And, more importantly, they work in harmony in both attack and defence.
No back-row will ever be effective unless they each have a clear and precise understanding of what the other two are doing and this has not been the case in recent games.
Give me a solid no injury performance tomorrow with a good return from both scrum and line-out and I’ll be delighted.
A win would also be nice but not essential albeit, in terms of confidence a win would be a fantastic way to depart.
With just two weeks to go the excitement is certainly building.