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Rugby World Cup: Gloves are off and Ireland must make a big first impression

By George Hook

Published 18/09/2015

Poor show: Tommy Bowe's lacklustre performance against England damaged his chances of securing a starting place
Poor show: Tommy Bowe's lacklustre performance against England damaged his chances of securing a starting place

The shortest war in history was fought between the United Kingdom and the Zanzibar Sultanate on August 27, 1896.

A bombardment by the British Navy under the command of Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson disabled the Zanzibaris' defending artillery and forced them into a surrender.

The whole affair was over in less than 40 minutes - a savage blitz by the superior superpower and a lesson in the art of an efficient victory.

Tomorrow, Joe Schmidt will attempt to flex his muscles in Ireland's opening World Cup pool game against Canada in Cardiff.

If Ireland have serious designs on breaching the quarter-final threshold for the first time, they must set about their task with ruthlessness and efficiency.

There are no more practice runs and there can be no more excuses following Ireland's bad breath of mediocrity in two huff-and-puff performances against Wales and England last month.

The performance tomorrow will be every bit as important as the result.

I do not buy into the widely-held belief that Ireland can saunter their way through the opening two rounds against Canada and Romania, before suddenly raising their game for Italy and France. Professional sport does not afford such a casual approach.

Great athletes in any sport forge their legacies under a juggernaut of ruthless efficiency. The size, shape and stature of opponents is often irrelevant. Top players focus only on themselves and strive for perfection, regardless of circumstance. It is what separates the consistently supreme from the journeymen.

The question is: where do Ireland fit in?

Schmidt has selected a strong XV to get the job done in Cardiff.

Robbie Henshaw's hamstring strain has prevented him from resuming his centre partnership with Jared Payne, so Luke Fitzgerald gets another opportunity to impress.

Fitzgerald has the ability to look like a superstar on his day, but the litany of injuries he has suffered have clearly dented his confidence to such an extent that he almost seems afraid to back himself.

No-one doubts his natural talent, but I would love to see Fitzgerald cut loose from his shackles of uncertainty and have a go.

A strong performance in the midfield tomorrow could force the coach's thinking for the crunch pool matches against Italy and France.

Henshaw is a certain starter in the centre on his return, but Fitzgerald has to have one eye on securing a winger's jersey.

Tommy Bowe appears to have done enormous damage to his chances of a starting spot with a poor showing against England.

The Monaghan man will be first to admit he was off the pace at Twickenham, but how many more opportunities will he get to make amends between now and the France game?

Based on the current team selection, it would appear that Bowe is now fifth choice, behind Dave Kearney, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Fitzgerald.

Schmidt has another chance to watch Iain Henderson partner Paul O'Connell in the second-row. Henderson's performances during the warm-up series were one of the few positives. A similar showing against Canada tomorrow should secure his position as the preferred second-row option.

Devin Toner may feel slightly aggrieved at losing his place after packing down alongside O'Connell for the majority of the Six Nations campaign, but the 6ft 10in Leinster man just doesn't have the ball skills and aggression to match his Ulster rival.

Henderson has been a rising star for some time now. This is his moment to shine.

Canada's record in their last five Tests has been nothing short of atrocious. Back-to-back defeats to the USA followed losses to Japan, Tonga and Samoa. They finished last in the Pacific Nations Cup.

Schmidt can wax lyrical til the cows come home about the couple of half-decent players in the opposition squad, but if 37-year-old Jamie Cudmore (Clermont) and DTH van der Merwe (formerly Glasgow, now Scarlets) are allowed to upset Ireland's game-plan, we might as well pack our bags and head home.

This game is a chance for Ireland to set a platform upon which success can be delivered. I expect Ireland to hit hard from the first whistle and put the game to bed before half-time.

A creaky opening win against poor opposition will do little restore confidence. There are no more dress rehearsals.

Ireland must start as they mean to continue.

Belfast Telegraph

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