Four long years of anticipation are over and the 2019 Rugby World Cup is finally ready to kick off for Joe Schmidt & his Irish squad. PSA Academies’ own Johne Murphy is back & he’s looked at what he expects to happen in the vital opening Pool A match against the Scots. Read his preview below.
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We’re finally here! After the high crescendo of the Grand Slam and All Blacks defeat in Dublin, followed ominously by the low and shaky days that were this year’s 6 Nations and the warm up humiliation against the English, it’s great to be now on the eve of Ireland’s first game at this Rugby World Cup in Japan. And what a corker it promises to be (weather permitting!).
Joe’s hand gets forced
Given the late injuries that he’s faced, Joe’s first selection is largely as expected, albeit with a few twists. With the greasy conditions forecasted, I was a bit surprised that my old house mate and Munster comrade Andrew Conway didn’t get the nod ahead of Leinster’s young tyro Jordan Larmour at full back. While Larmour has more recent game time and more international caps at 15, Conway is an exceptional footballer and particularly strong in the air. I’ve read some speculation that Joe & Andy Farrell might look to drop two of the back three deeper in the backfield at times on Sunday, trusting our midfield defensive pressure and the slippy ball to force the Scots into kicking it to a dangerous and quick counter attacking cover but that doesn’t come without it’s own fair share of risks. Of course, having Conway on the field from the start makes tactical switching between himself and Larmour a lot easier, so I would expect Ireland to mess with Finn Russell’s head and radar by potentially moving in between the positions at times. But one can’t underestimate the game smarts of Scottish head coach Gregor Townsend and there’s no doubt that he’ll view the absence of Rob Kearney as a massive opportunity to exploit.
Elsewhere in the backline, the Scots won’t be looking forward to facing the arch poacher that is Jacob Stockdale on a slippery day. While the Scottish back three of Seymour, Maitland and Hogg have buckets of tries in them, the superior kicking game of the Irish half backs plus the expected set piece dominance of the Irish eight will likely mean that this cutting edge gets blunted in Yokohama. Thankfully, largely as a result of all the injuries we’ve suffered in the our centres pool over the last 2 years, the Aki/Ringrose partnership is proven and has a reassuring solidity to it. Having said that, Garry Ringrose has something big to prove, given that there was every chance that he might have lost out on a starting place had a sharp looking Robbie Henshaw not strained his hamstring in training. He’ll be hoping that Aki get’s some space and gainline dominance against the Scots so that he can pick off any vital offloads.
Halfback edge on Irish side
Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray won’t need any reminding of the weight of expectation and responsibility they carry for not just this game but the whole tournament, so hopefully we can see them continue to build their form with a performance of control and class. Laidlaw is vastly experienced and a solid controller of the game from a stable platform but it’s had to believe that Murray and his backrow will allow him that. As for Finn Russell, he can be anything on any given Sunday and we just have to hope that a shortage of quality ball, a pumped up Johnny Sexton in his face and the wet conditions will take the edge off his genius for this one.
Pressure on Best & his pack
Up front, it’s pretty much Joe and Simon Easterby’s go to starting pack, with the biggest pressure to perform probably likely to be felt by captain Rory Best and number 8 CJ Stander. Both men are pivotal in the tight, particularly in the contact area where the Scottish backrow will be looking to frustrate and torment Ireland. Best needs a good day at the lineout and with all the pre-tournament experimentation over, I’d expect Henderson and Ryan to give him the type of target that brings out the best in his throwing. Both Gray and Gilchrist will look to disrupt so the calling of Henderson, the accuracy of the Irish lifters and the approach of referee Wayne Barnes to any lineout encroachment will be key to the required high success rate here. With the conditions expected, the scrum is also going to be a critical area, particularly in terms of penalty count (which could end up deciding this one) so expect to see Ireland really hound the Scottish front row of Dell, McNally and Nel.
Depth charges new strength
Not many will argue that the biggest game changer now for Ireland, versus when we kicked off the 2015 Rugby World Cup, is the quality of our replacements bench and literally every man on there is a potential gamechanger. Niall Scannel was a bit of bolter ahead of an unlucky Sean Cronin but with his solid throwing, he may be a key insurance play for Joe if the lineout isn’t quite functioning. Expect to see the full front row hit the pitch between the 55-60 minute mark and I think Dave Kilcoyne will have another absolute snorter when he emerges. Both Beirne and Conan can have a serious impact in the breakdown once they are sprung, while Carty will surely get another chance to build on his growing reputation as a smart, footballing ‘closer’. With Joey Carbery and the other injured players looking to get back in the frame for the Japan game, the pressure will be on the 23 to really stake a claim to hold their spots.
There’s always the danger of over confidence on this one and the Scots never usually bring out the best in us (particular when the weather is down) but it’s hard not to feel like Ireland have turned a corner and are set to get their World Cup journey off to an tight but ultimately convincing winning Rugby World Cup start.