Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Emerald Isle jewels must sparkle or face embarrassment

Ulster captain Rory Best says Ireland are looking to sharpen up on their ball skills and team patterns in their World Cup warm-up matches

It has been a long week of difficult decisions for Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan.

And just as he hopes not to rue the necessary culling of seven men from his squad on Sunday morning, he hopes that this time tomorrow he won't be cursing his decision to display all the jewels of his squad against Bayonne tonight.

Waiting to crush those jewels into the Basque earth is a physical Bayonne side of grizzled, experienced campaigners who care nothing for the delicate balancing act forced upon O'Sullivan, and who would take huge pleasure in tipping the Ireland coach off his tight-rope and into a gloomy September in which he has to survive without his shiniest stones.

"The players need game time and this match gives us that opportunity," O'Sullivan explained today.

"You cannot replicate the same levels of intensity and physicality in training as you can in a match, so tonight's game will be vital for preparation.

"This will be a full-on match and will give the team the levels of contact we need."

'Full on' is right.

None of tonight's Bayonne side are in the current international squad but that won't prevent their French loyalties from recognising an opportunity to strike a potentially mortal blow to Ireland's hopes in September.

France v Ireland in Paris for the right to avoid New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-finals is only a month away, and most rugby people know too well that Ireland's pool of really world class players is a little shallow.

"The players have really been chomping at the bit to get a game and it will be a step up for them as they come out of their preseason, but it is something that they need, " stressed O'Sullivan.

From here on it will be about building momentum and fine-tuning the other essential elements, including familiarisation with French culture and the passion of the French rugby fans.

For that, there is no better place to be than here, where rugby is the only sport that matters, other than surfing. Despite the involvement of Ireland's first team this is not a full representative match, so the men in green will become the boys in blue for one night only.

Playing in unfamiliar jerseys is unavoidable, but an off-colour display against a weakened French club side would be unacceptable.

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