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Rugby World Cup 2015: Ireland v Scotland - squad feels the heat as showtime looms

By Tony Ward

Published 15/08/2015

Talking tactics: Ireland boss Joe Schmidt and Ian Madigan, who will be given a key role in today's match
Talking tactics: Ireland boss Joe Schmidt and Ian Madigan, who will be given a key role in today's match

Some 14 changes from the team that blitzed the Welsh in Cardiff and yet containing but six - Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Luke Fitzgerald, Mike Ross, Devin Toner and Sean O'Brien - of the first choice line-up that made it back-to-back Six Nations titles against the Scots in Murrayfield back in March.

Coach Vern Cotter includes four - all up front - from the Scottish team that day so in every respect this is the definitive trial and I suspect for Joe Schmidt the last genuine opportunity to experiment before the team-building process for the opening Pool game begins against the Welsh in that return match in Dublin a fortnight today.

What we witnessed in Cardiff, while on the one hand a relatively meaningless victory, was a strength in depth reflecting a well tutored, highly conditioned, firmly focused squad who get what this series of games and meticulous build-up is all about.

Of course hammering Wales in early August (and the final score did not reflect the gulf in understanding and organisation) means nothing unless we hit the ground running against the Canadians in the same stadium on September 19 and then peak against the Italians and French on the way to a top place finish in Pool D.

Of course any such reference will be dismissed out of hand by those in the bubble that is Carton House and that is as it should be.

As it was at the Millennium for the 23 involved a week ago so it is for those on match duty today. At this point in their careers this is their World Cup final if they are to make the 31-man cut on the train set to leave for England 2015 on August 31.

Even the more mature members are feeling the heat and if they're not then there's something wrong and they will be the losers. With Schmidt and Les Kiss calling the shots, of that you can be guaranteed.

And speaking of guarantees, while there is no such given on the back of our standing in world rugby (number two in the latest rankings) you can take it as read that even the most established stars set to enter the warm up process for the first time against the Welsh on August 29 are feeling that knot in the stomach at what is transpiring all round.

Equals in training they may be but on the perimeter come match time is not a comfortable place to be irrespective of who you are or what you have achieved in the game to date. That is the Schmidt mantra and don't this group - potentially our best and certainly our deepest squad ever - recognise that reality only too well.

So where to today? Despite Warren Gatland's typical grudging post-match assessment of Ireland's structured performance and playing style expect more of the same from those filling jerseys one to 23 this afternoon.

As in Cardiff there is no form to draw on going into today's warm-up.

If anything, despite the overhaul in personnel, we are at a major advantage with that one game under our belt. That, home advantage and the bar raised even further by the nature of last week's win ratchets up the pressure. Schmidt and his backroom staff would want it no other way.

So in individual terms what are we looking for?

Starting at the very back the selection of Simon Zebo excites. Make no mistake this is a huge game for the extrovert utility back. As things stand Felix Jones is in pole position as back-up to Rob Kearney in the last line.

I thought the Munster full back put in an impressive shift, particularly in attacking terms, against the Welsh. What Zebo offers however is that X-factor in a crisis.

That Eoin Reddan/Ian Madigan type impact off the bench. Were Zebo to deliver at full back today it could make the back three selection that bit more comfortable for the main man come August 31.

The stakes are massive too for Gordon D'Arcy, Dave Kilcoyne, Dan Tuohy, Devin Toner and Jack Conan. I'll not comment too much on Conan other than to say he is where he deserves to be and, in my possibly blinkered view, on schedule. Yes he is raw and wet behind the ears, all I'll say is don't underestimate his late run up the rails in the least. Whether at six or eight plus that all-important extra line out option he is the business.

Beyond that Sean O'Brien, Madigan, possibly D'Arcy and Zebo at eight, 10, 12 and 15 respectively could well reflect the head coach's back-up thinking in those positions. Certainly for Darcy and Zebo it looks like make or break.

Take Schmidt to trump fellow Kiwi Cotter and make it two from two.

Belfast Telegraph

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