herald

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Brent Pope: Irish won't show their game-plan

Ireland rugby
Ireland rugby

THERE is always a couple of teething problems when it comes to man-managing any type of sporting squad in a world cup year.

Firstly, you want the players to perform to their best ability, but you also want them to remain injury free.

Secondly, while you want to win in order to gain momentum and develop a winning culture, you also don't want to show too much of your game-plan to other teams. A tough juggling act to get right.

The problem with injury is that when players are not fully committed or even somewhat subconsciously worried about getting injured, then Murphy's Law dictates that is exactly when it will happen.

It is almost certain Ireland will get some injuries in the next few weeks the only hope is that it is not to one of their key players, Ireland's success really depends on it.

Ireland does have good strength in depth in certain positions, but in crucial decision-making areas like 9 and 10, Ireland depends on players like Johnathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Paul O'Connell and the entire backrow arriving to the RWC in rude good health.

Tomorrow Ireland take on Wales in front of a sell-out crowd in the Millennium Stadium. It will be interesting to see if the roof is being closed for rain or sunburn, such is the odd time of the year to be playing a winter sport; it does give the Irish team a serious advantage in that two of Ireland's pool games will also be in Cardiff.

Both squads have prepared quite differently for this World Cup. Gatland always prefers to take his players out of Wales and immerse them in military style fitness regimes in far flung locations such as Qatar and Switzerland.

Schmidt on the other hand has adopted the opposite approach, choosing to keep his players based at home and allowing them time to train and rest in places they are comfortable with.

When the All Blacks won the last World Cup, albeit in their own backyard, their coach Steve Hansen insisted that his team spent some of their lead-up time experiencing home stays in smaller rural parts of New Zealand.

Psychologically it allowed the players some normality in their lives, a welcomed break from rugby but it also gave the players an insight to see how privileged they were, and what it meant to normal folk to have the chance to represent your country, and it worked, both in 1987 and then 2011. As far as his World Cup squad is concerned, Schmidt probably has a hard core of 25 or 26 players already pencilled in; it is the make-up of the other remaining half a dozen that he must aim to get right. And that may mean some surprise selections and omissions when the squad is cut.

Does Schmidt opt for the more versatile players that can cover more than one position, or risk taking the more specialist type of player?

Of the key Irish players, prop Cian Healy remains the most serious injury doubt, and despite his world class talents it would seem that he will have to play at least one game in the next three, given the English game will come after the 31-man squad has already been announced.

COMBINATIONS

Other combinations the Irish coach will be concentrating on in the next two games will be at full-back, wing, the centres and the final balance of his backrow.

At wing and full-back Schmidt is blessed with a number of options. This weekend sees Munster's Keith Earls push for a place in the squad given his ability to play wing, full-back and centre. Earls has not played a game under Schmidt's tutelage, but on his day has proved to be a lethal finisher.

As Assistant Coach Simon Easterby has said: "This is not about developing players for the future or selecting on reputation, it is about the here and now, who has the form, who puts their hand up and says you can't leave me behind."

Don't expect too many surprises in the Irish game plan this weekend, this will all be about perfecting the basics first. Individuals will also know that they have a better chance of shining if the team in general works first.

Schmidt admits that Easterby has enjoyed extra time with the pack in the last month, in particular working on various lineout and first phase options, but don't expect the Irish team to show too much too early.

Variations and intricate plays straight from the training ground will be parked until the World Cup starts. These warm up games will be more about structure, combinations and how players interact with each other in real game situations, he also needs players that will make good squad members and who work well together. Prediction: An experimential Ireland to beat an understrength Welsh side.

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